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Conrad Walks a Budget Line

As he pushes to pass his spending blueprint this week, Senate Budget Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) is having a tough time balancing his core principles against the pressure of delivering for a popular Democratic president.

Though Conrad is no stranger to writing budget resolutions — he did it for the past two years under a George W. Bush White House — this is the first time in his career that he’s also been in charge of helping shepherd through the Senate an ambitious Democratic agenda that actually has a chance of being enacted. And so far, the raised stakes have clearly put the longtime deficit hawk in an uncomfortable position.

“He’s got the consistency of his principles ... but what’s different is he’s got a Democratic president,” one senior Senate Democratic aide said.

Conrad’s strong belief in deficit and debt reduction has made him perhaps the most vocal and public face of Democratic dissent over President Barack Obama’s budget plan. And the chairman has come under fire from some in his own party for slashing spending and refusing to use fast-track budget maneuvers to protect the president’s top priorities — health care reform, global warming legislation and boosts in education funding.

At the same time, the four-term Senator seems almost resigned to the fact that he might get rolled on those issues once his budget meets up with a House-passed budget in an upcoming bicameral conference committee.

“You know I’ve got an obligation that the critics don’t have. I’ve got an obligation to get something passed, and so I have to listen to everybody,” Conrad said Tuesday. “I have to listen to those who want more spending, I have to listen to those who want less, and I have to try to be sufficiently aware that I can actually produce something that can pass. And I think I’ve done that.”

Belying his stature as Budget chairman, however, Conrad seemed to suggest one day earlier that the White House, along with House and Senate Democratic leaders, would be the ultimate decision-makers when it comes to the final 2010 budget plan.

“I don’t control the outcome of the conference. You know? I’m a participant, but I don’t control the outcome,” Conrad told reporters.

But he warned on Tuesday that, “People want to change things, and I said yesterday, they change them at their peril because that may create a resolution that cannot pass.”

A longtime critic of the Bush administration’s use of budget gimmickry, Conrad’s difficulties in writing a budget that actually matters were compounded last month when the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office — whose projections Congress uses to write spending outlines — came out with a markedly different outlook for the country’s fiscal health than did Obama’s Office of Management and Budget. The CBO predicted that the Obama budget was off by a whopping $2.3 trillion in its deficit estimates.

“Kent’s put in a very bad position of trying to reconcile an economy that’s continuing to go down but yet keep the president’s priorities. And I think he’s done that,” Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) said.

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