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Conrad Walks a Budget Line

While Obama sought to cut the deficit in half in four years, Conrad proposed a two-thirds deficit cut over five years. But to create the numbers that he wanted, Conrad had to eliminate much of Obama’s plan for “honest budgeting,” including a $10 billion set-aside for disaster assistance as well as an assumption that some tax policies will not actually expire. The gambit on disaster funding, in particular, seemed ironic given that his state is experiencing severe flooding, and that Conrad was among those asking Obama for emergency disaster relief.

“There are certainly Members who disagree with me and who have expressed that disagreement, but I think people know ... I speak from real belief,” Conrad said. “I think we’ve done a good job of keeping the president’s key priorities intact, but we’ve made adjustments that were required because we had $2.3 trillion less in revenue to write a budget than [Obama] did.”

Conrad also declined to wall off money for climate change and health care reforms as Obama did, and instead wrote a budget that will force Democrats to find offsets for the potentially massive new spending programs.

Some Senate Democrats said Conrad dealt with the discrepancies badly because he seemed to criticize the president’s budget as irresponsible rather than stressing the similarities between Capitol Hill Democrats and the White House’s plans.

“At the end of the day, the president’s priorities will be taken care of ... but on the way to getting there, there were a lot of people who wanted to look like budget hawks,” one Senate Democratic aide said.

Plus, Conrad generated ire within his own party by not sharing some of his cuts to Obama’s budget with leadership until late in the process, which led to a delay in the party’s public relations strategy and attention on the split between the White House and Congress, aides said.

“The decisions about those things were not shared in a way that would allow the party to weave a narrative” about why Congress’ budget was different from Obama’s, another Senate Democratic aide said. “The way it was done, it was created a whole lot of stories about ‘Democrats in disarray’ or ‘Democrats at odds.’”

For example, Conrad did not give Democratic leaders a sufficient heads-up about his decision to save money in his budget by eliminating the disaster-relief reserve or on his plan to write a five-year budget rather than a 10-year plan as Obama did. Those decisions and others opened up the Democrats to attacks from Republicans that they were using budget gimmicks to make the fiscal picture appear rosier.

Ultimately, Obama came to the Senate himself to remind his former colleagues that their political fortunes were intertwined and that they needed to keep the message wars to a minimum. Aides said last week’s Obama visit worked to unify the party and bring people like Conrad back on message.

Still, Conrad has plenty of defenders, who said he threaded the needle as best as he could under the circumstances.

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