Conrad: A thorn in Obama’s side

Sen. Kent Conrad (N.D.) has emerged as one of the most effective Democratic critics of President Obama’s agenda, despite their close friendship and the fact that Conrad was one of Obama’s earliest supporters for the White House.

Conrad has dealt significant setbacks to Obama’s biggest policy proposals: healthcare reform, the budget and a controversial climate change plan.

Perhaps his most noticeable action came last week when he invited Doug Elmendorf, the director of the Congressional Budget Office, to testify about the long-term budgetary implications of healthcare proposals under consideration by Democrats.

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Under questioning from Conrad, Elmendorf delivered a bombshell, testifying that healthcare proposals drafted in the House and by the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee would not curb healthcare spending, as Obama has envisioned, but instead add to federal spending.

“It was devastating,” Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) said of the effect of Elmendorf’s assessment.

Conrad said he suspected Elmendorf would give the answer he did, but wanted to hear it so that his colleagues would understand the real impact of the legislation they are considering.

“I did not know what his answer would be; I suspected that’s what his answer would be,” Conrad said. “I suspected that was the answer but I didn’t know for sure because I’m not an expert on the House bill.”

Conrad defends his actions by saying he has done what is necessary to pass Obama’s agenda through the Senate and to safeguard the interests of North Dakotans and future generations of Americans.

Conrad was the second member of the Senate to endorse Obama’s bid for the White House and the two were close friends when Obama served in the chamber. But Conrad, the chairman of the Budget Committee, also represents a conservative state that has traditionally backed Republicans for president.

Budget chairmen are usually relegated to the background after Congress passes its annual budget resolution, but Conrad has found a way to stay very relevant.

When asked about the question to Elmendorf, Conrad said he was concerned less about the prospect of derailing Obama’s vision for healthcare reform than about delivering a wake-up call.

“I didn’t have in my mind pleasing or displeasing the president. What I had in mind was getting an answer to a critically important question,” said Conrad. “I wanted to know what the truth is and to make sure that all of us who are working on this know what the truth is.”

Elmendorf’s testimony has helped slow momentum on the proposals, which were crafted with little Republican input, and turn the focus back to negotiations held between members of Senate Finance Committee, who are trying to reach a compromise with several GOP colleagues.

Conrad is a member of the Finance Committee and his seat on that panel has kept him in the midst of several major debates.

Democrats say they appreciate Conrad’s keen intellect and tough questions. But privately they say he could be more helpful in advancing the Democratic leadership’s agenda, rather than derailing it.

“Conrad has played an appropriate role in asking questions but not much of a role in coming up with answers,” said an adviser to a Democrat involved in healthcare negotiations. “I’d like him to go one step further and embrace something and say we’re moving it in the right direction.”

Colleagues describe Conrad as adamant about controlling the deficit. He first won election to the Senate by pledging to restore fiscal balance to the country. (He even resigned his seat after one term after failing to reduce the federal deficit. He won election to North Dakota’s other seat when former Sen. Quentin Burdick (D) died in office.)

Conrad, who has clashed with liberals throughout healthcare negotiations, has been a vocal opponent of using a procedural tactic known as reconciliation, which would allow Democrats to pass elements of healthcare reform with only 51 votes.

Conrad is also the author of a proposal to set up member-run healthcare cooperatives instead of a robust government-run insurance program, known as the public option, which Obama has made the centerpiece of his healthcare reform agenda. Liberal critics have blasted Conrad’s co-op proposal as a “cop-out.”

Before the debate over healthcare reform, Conrad defied the president on the budget and climate legislation.

In March, Conrad declared that the budget proposal Obama sent to Congress could not pass.

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“Anybody who thinks it will be easy to get the votes on the budget in the conditions that we face is smoking something,” Conrad said.

Over the next few weeks, Conrad took a knife to Obama’s budget. He proposed cutting $160 billion from Obama’s request for non-defense programs over the next five years. And while Obama asked for a 12 percent increase in discretionary spending, Conrad called for only a 6 percent increase.

Conrad also took a strong stand against allowing Obama’s climate change proposal to be passed more easily under reconciliation rules.