- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 31, 2009

A month into this session of Congress, Sen. Kent Conrad and Rep. John M. Spratt Jr. called a press conference to blast the Bush administration’s fiscal record, citing skyrocketing deficits and an eye-popping level of national debt.

The chairmen of the Senate and House budget committees employed several charts, as they had done throughout Mr. Bush’s presidency, to illustrate what Mr. Spratt described as the “grim epitaph” to a financial debacle being passed on to President Obama.

Now the two deficit hawks are being forced to swallow a bitter pill as even their whittled-down versions of Mr. Obama’s $3.7 trillion budget promise trillions of dollars in deficits over the next five years - a reality, they say, dictated by a deep global recession.

Still, the two men face an unprecedented challenge pushing their plans through Congress. They must alleviate sticker shock among colleagues, preserve enough of Mr. Obama’s ambitious proposals to please liberals and prune enough to attract fiscally conservative Democratic “Blue Dogs.”

“Particularly with Conrad, he’s faced with a very difficult task, which is to get a budget resolution through the Senate,” said Robert L. Bixby, executive director of the Concord Coalition, a nonpartisan group that promotes responsible fiscal policy. “In order to do that, he has to placate various factions. Sometimes you can’t afford to be a purist.”

Mr. Conrad, of North Dakota, is in his fourth term in the Senate, where he has been the chamber’s top Democrat on the budget panel since 2001.

During his first Senate campaign, the Bismarck native promised not to seek a second term if the deficit was not brought under control in six years. Despite his popularity in the polls, he stuck to his pledge and opted not to run for re-election in 1992, but after the unexpected death of the state’s other senator, Quentin Burdick, he ran for that seat and won.

In the time since, Mr. Conrad has earned a reputation as a fierce critic of runaway debt, recognized by Time in 2006 as one of the nation’s top 10 senators for his fiscal concern. In fact, as the magazine noted, his office used so many charts it was given its own special printing equipment.

Under former President George W. Bush, he criticized tax cuts and the abandonment of pay-as-you-go rules that required new costs to be offset elsewhere, often calling for tax increases to combat the deficit. For the first time since the enactment of the Budget Act in 1974, no budget resolution was passed in the almost evenly divided Senate in 2002, a trend that was followed in 2004 and 2006.

Mr. Conrad’s task is compounded by a recession and an unprecedented deficit this year of $1.7 trillion. His effort to trim Mr. Obama’s budget, including $15 billion in domestic agency funding and $250 billion for future financial bailouts, might not be enough for moderate Democrats concerned about overall levels of spending and some of the president’s initiatives, such as his controversial cap-and-trade proposal.

“He probably understands the federal budget about as well as any human being living today, so we really appreciate Senator Conrad, and he’s been given a very, very difficult environment that he has to legislate in,” said Sen. Mark Pryor, Arkansas Democrat. “I think most Democrats have the approach that we are not here to represent the president - we’re here to represent the states that sent us here.”

Despite the White House’s assertion that its budget is “98 percent the same” as the House and Senate versions, there are key differences. Mr. Conrad’s version drops Mr. Obama’s main middle-class tax cut after next year, scraps his proposal to cut farm payments for higher income brackets and does not include any direct instructions to implement his cap-and-trade plan. It supports the idea of a health care overhaul but requires that any action must be deficit-neutral.

Like Mr. Spratt’s budget in the House, Mr. Conrad’s plan reverts back to a five-year budget. He argues that the current economy is too volatile for a meaningful 10-year projection like the one Mr. Obama submitted. Critics painted it as a tactic to hide the nation’s mounting debt.

“I know we haven’t usually done 10-year budgets around here, but when the president sends up a 10-year budget, to not put in the last five years in the congressional budget is to essentially play hide the ball,” said Sen. Judd Gregg, ranking Republican on the budget committee, at the panel’s markup last week. “We know where the last five years are going, under your budget and his budget. It’s not very pretty.”

For his part, Mr. Conrad has defended his budget, which aims to cut the deficit to $508 billion by 2014 - compared to the Obama budget’s goal of $750 billion - shrugging off the notion that he is not living up to his reputation as a fiscal hawk.

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