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Roll Call

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.

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.

“I think because he was concerned about deficits it was heard as criticism, but that’s not the way he meant it. This is somebody who is very much a part of the team in terms of supporting the priorities of the president,” Stabenow said.

Senate Democratic Conference Secretary Patty Murray (Wash.) said Conrad’s hard work would end up paying off by Thursday or Friday, when the Senate is expected to vote on final passage of its budget.

“He’s a great vote counter. He understands where the center of our caucus is and where he needs to land in order to get a budget out,” Murray said. “I think you’ll see that reflected in the votes when we get to final passage.”

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