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What Is the Gang of Six?

By Mark Wollacott
Updated May 17, 2024
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There are two groups called the gang of six. Six senators making bipartisan attempts to solve a crisis or to block or amend a piece of legislation going through the American houses formed both groups. The first group of six in 2009 was formed because of President Barack Obama’s attempt to create legislation regarding healthcare reform. The second group of six was formed in 2011 and attempted to avert the debt-ceiling crisis of that year.

The term “gang of six” has an earlier precursor in American politics. In 2005, during the presidency of George W. Bush, a group of 14 senators formed the “gang of 14” to diffuse a series of confrontations between House Republicans and Democrats. The trouble began with Democrats refusing to approve Bush’s judicial appointments and got worse, when Republicans tried to remove the Senate’s ability to filibuster legislation and appointments. Seven senators from each party agreed on a compromise that allowed most judicial appointments to pass, but also prevented the Republicans from removing the right to filibuster.

China provides the ultimate origin of this term. A gang of x number of people is a term used to describe a situation where a small group of people has power over the whole government and, therefore, the country too. In China, this occurred during the Cultural Revolution between 1966 and 1976 when Jiang Qing, Zhang Chunqiao, Yao Wenyuan, and Wang Hongwan controlled China. They were dubbed the “gang of four” by the Chinese government in 1976 because “four” also represents the word for “death” in Chinese.

The first gang of six was formed in 2009 to deal with President Barack Obama’s healthcare reform plans. All six were members of the senate’s financial committee: Chuck Grassley from Iowa; Mike Enzi from Wyoming; and Olympia Snowe from Maine represented the Republicans. Jeff Bingaman from New Mexico, Max Baucus from Montana, and Kent Conrad from North Dakota represented centrist Democrats. Of the six, only Olympia Snowe was part of the original gang of 14.

Obama instigated the original group as a bipartisan attempt to find common ground on healthcare reform. Broadly speaking, Democrats were in favor of reform, but Republicans were not. The legislation attempted to move American healthcare more in line with the systems of Canada and Western Europe. The gang of six called for delays and amendments to the 2009 legislation and ultimately caused its failure in the Senate.

In 2011, America was approaching an artificial debt ceiling that, if reached, would have prevented the government from borrowing extra money. This would have made it impossible for the government to continue paying staff salaries and to continue paying for federal programs. The Democrat President and the Republican-controlled Senate were unable or unwilling to reach an agreement about debt management and a raising of the debt ceiling to allow the government to borrow more money.

Three republicans and three democrats formed the second gang of six. Kent Conrad again represented the democrats along with Mark Warner from Virginia and Dick Durbin from Illinois. Mike Crapo from Idaho, Saxby Chambliss from Georgia, and Tom Coburn from Oklahoma represented the Republicans. The six senators were able to reach an agreement where the debt ceiling was raised and the government agreed to cut some of its spending.

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