Sen. Kent Conrad’s decision to retire in 2012 gives him one last chance to cement his legacy as a deficit hawk.
The North Dakota Democrat has long advocated for a sweeping, bipartisan budget deal that would pair politically painful spending cuts and tax increases to slash the deficit. He pushed to create last year’s bipartisan fiscal commission and, as one of its members, voted for its recommendation of $4 trillion in deficit reduction over the next decade.
Conrad said Tuesday that he had considered his decision for months and ultimately decided over the holidays that he wanted to focus his efforts on containing the national debt rather than running for another term.
“When I think about what has to be done for the country, I recognize that if we don’t get this debt under control, we are going to be diminished as a nation,” Conrad said in a Q-and-A on his website. “How do I want to spend my time in these next two years? I really want to be focused on helping getting a result on that great challenge.”
Conrad listed other priorities that he would like to focus on — including reducing dependence on foreign oil and writing a new farm bill — but his principal goal has always been tackling the debt.
The North Dakota Democrat announced his retirement once before — in 1992 — keeping true to a pledge that he wouldn’t seek re-election unless trade and budget deficits were reduced on his watch. But when Sen. Quentin Burdick died later that year, Democrats persuaded Conrad to run for Burdick’s seat.
Like the fiscal commission, Conrad wants tough new cost controls, but he wants to delay much of the pain until the economy is on sounder footing.
“You shouldn’t have the bite occur too soon or you endanger this fragile recovery,” he said at a Jan. 6 hearing with Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke.
Indeed, senior Democrats and Republicans are eyeing the new era of divided government as having at least the potential for a bipartisan debt deal like the 1997 balanced budget agreement President Bill Clinton struck with Republicans that led to years of surpluses.
Several choke points are coming up that will force the two parties to come together. A continuing resolution keeping the government operating expires March 4, and the $14.3 trillion debt ceiling must be raised soon afterward, with the deficit averaging about $100 billion a month. Some Republicans are demanding deep budget cuts in exchange for raising the debt ceiling and keeping the government open, and Conrad used the debt limit vote last year as leverage to get the fiscal commission off the ground.
One Senate Democratic aide likened Conrad’s newfound freedom to that exercised by former Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) during the negotiations over financial reform. Dodd was able to negotiate the overhaul — and get it passed — after he decided against running for re-election.