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North Dakota Sen. Kent Conrad (D) is in the right place, at the right time. Or, depending how you look at it, hes in precisely the wrong place, at precisely the wrong time.
Conrad, after all, chairs the Senate Budget Committee, making him a key player in President Barack Obamas effort to pass a budget, and ultimately to move forward with expensive, expansive programs.
But its not just his chairmanship that makes North Dakotas senior Senator a key player. Its that Conrad begins with well-earned credibility as one of the Senates true deficit hawks that allows him to take on a president of his own party, both now and later.
Will Conrad continue to be a vocal critic of bigger deficits, even if it means fighting the presidents agenda on global warming, health care and the financial industry? Or will he simply talk about the danger of exploding deficits while allowing deficits totaling $9.3 trillion from 2010 to 2019 a figure that the Congressional Budget Office calculated from the administrations budget proposal?
Since the budget resolution is only a blueprint, Conrad will have many opportunities to take on the White House over spending and the deficit if he so chooses. And some Democrats willingness to consider using the reconciliation process (which requires only a bare majority, not 60 votes) to jam controversial health care and possibly global warming legislation through the Senate will give Conrad other opportunities to make a stand.
The North Dakota Democrat begins with some unique qualities and assets as a possible adversary for Obama, who has his own great abilities.
Kent is a quiet, effective Member who becomes more important every day that hes there, former Sen. John Breaux (D-La.) told me recently.
But Breaux didnt stop there.
Republicans dont always agree with him. Democrats dont always agree with him. But Senators from both parties will tell you that they are happy that he is there. They know that hell bring a sense of sanity to the [budgetary and legislative] process.
Conrad is widely regarded as one of the most knowledgeable, hardest-working Senators on Capitol Hill, and he has, at least in part, moved into a role once played by Breaux: the legislative broker who tries to bring various interests together to produce a reasonable bill that can be enacted into law.
Conrad, who is the only person in history to hold both of a states Senate seats at the same time (however briefly), has been a deficit hawk since he was first sent to the Senate by North Dakota voters in 1986, when he knocked off incumbent Sen. Mark Andrews (R). Hes been an advocate of balanced budgets (and pay-as-you-go rules) whether the White House was held by a Republican or a Democrat.
One Republican Capitol Hill staffer who is very familiar with Conrad was nothing short of effusive in explaining the North Dakotans skills.
Most Members will tell staff what they need and leave it to them to do the real work. Not Conrad. He sits through the negotiations. Its almost as if he does staff work in addition to a Members work. He always has paper. He has information. He knows his stuff. And when the doors close, he cuts the deal, said the staffer.
The question, of course, is whether everyone will like the deal.
Republicans, in particular, were quick to criticize Conrads version of the budget last week.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Obamas budget spends too much, taxes too much and borrows too much the newest Republican refrain. But he also slammed Conrad when he complained that given all the bipartisan praise that budget transparency received ... the Budget Committee voted to put most of the gimmicks and tricks back in.
Conrads disagreement with the Obama budgets bottom line doesnt necessarily mean that the North Dakotan disagrees with what Obama wants to accomplish. He has only suggested that he is unhappy with the cost of some of the pieces of President Obamas agenda.
However, Conrad has indicated that he isnt ready to throw out procedural niceties, such as the filibuster, to accomplish big changes.
Given the presidents emphasis on bipartisan cooperation and changing the tone in Washington, D.C., as well as the likelihood that Republicans would go nuclear if Senate Democrats tried to use reconciliation to pass cap-and-trade legislation or even fundamental health care reform, Conrad could find himself facing off against his own partys Senate leadership.
Serious and studious, Conrad doesnt possess Barack Obamas charisma or bully pulpit. But because of his reputation and skill as a negotiator, the North Dakota Democrat definitely is a man to watch in the coming months.
Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.