Senate Budget Committee Head Weighs In On Budget

President Obama's 2012 budget has drawn criticism from both political parties. Many Republicans argue it doesn't cut enough, while some Democrats say the cuts disproportionally hurt the poor. Sen. Kent Conrad (D-ND), head of the Senate Budget Committee, shares his thoughts on the president's plan.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

Another Senate vet elects to retire, a familiar face takes the CPAC straw poll, and we've already forgotten the fastest scandal in congressional history. It's Wednesday and time for a fit and classy edition of the Political Junkie.

President RONALD REAGAN: There you go again.

Vice President WALTER MONDALE: When I hear your new ideas, I'm reminded of that ad. Where's the beef?

Senator BARRY GOLDWATER (Republican, Arizona): Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.

Senator LLOYD BENTSEN (Democrat, Texas): Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy.

President RICHARD NIXON: You don't have Nixon to kick around anymore.

Governor SARAH PALIN (Republican, Alaska): Lipstick.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: But I'm the decider.

(Soundbite of scream)

CONAN: Every Wednesday, Political Junkie Ken Rudin joins us to discuss the week in politics. Senator Jon Kyl announces his retirement and sets off two races, one in Arizona, the other on Capitol Hill. Special elections for Congress coming up in New York and California. And this week's three R's: Ron Paul rules at CPAC. Mitt Romney takes the winter-book lead in New Hampshire. And Rahm Emanuel commands the race in Chicago.

In a few minutes, Senate Budget Committee chair Kent Conrad joins us. Later in the program, "Restrepo" kicks off our annual series on Oscar-nominated documentaries.

But first, Political Junkie Ken Rudin joins us here, as usual, in three - and as usual, we begin with a trivia question.

KEN RUDIN: Another R.

CONAN: Rudin.

RUDIN: Exactly. Well, Texas Congressman Ron Paul won the CPAC straw poll on Saturday. He also ran for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008, and he may run again in 2012.

CONAN: Well, nobody's quite declared.

RUDIN: True, but next month, he will be in the key state of Iowa. Anyway, he was also the Libertarian Party nominee for president in 1988. So the question is: Who was the last person to serve in Congress and to also run for president under two different parties?

CONAN: If you think you know the answer, the last person to both serve in Congress and then run for president under the banners of two different political parties, the most recent one, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org.

And Ken, Jon Kyl, well, Jon Kyl seemed to be a shoo-in for re-election.

RUDIN: Well, perhaps. I mean, it was a big surprise, unlike Jim Webb. We talked about Jim Webb of Virginia retiring last week, and we kind of thought that that was not a surprise at all. He never seemed happy there.

Jon Kyl is the number-two-ranking Republican in the Senate, and many people feel that with only three or four seats Republicans need in 2012 to get the majority, they were on their way to do it. You'd think that Jon Kyl had only bigger and better things to follow.

But he's 68 years old. He announced last week that he would not run for a fourth term. And he said: Look, you know, I've done - I've been in Washington 25 years. I've done everything I needed to do. But I thought it was a big surprise.

CONAN: And who is likely to be lining up to replace him?

RUDIN: Well, there's two things. Of course, you mentioned two different fights, and there are two different fights. In Washington, Lamar Alexander, who's the number-three-ranking Republican in the Senate from Tennessee, he is going to likely run for the whip position.

And John Cornyn, who is the chairman of the Republican Senatorial Committee, who did very well obviously in 2010 and perhaps could do that again in 2012, he of Texas, may also run for that position.

But back home in Arizona for the seat, no Democrat has won that Senate seat in Arizona since 1988. Republicans already declared Jeff Flake, very conservative, first elected in 2000, a real budget hawk. He's already in the race, and he may have, secretly, Jon Kyl's blessing. We're not sure about that. But he seems to be the early - I hate to use the word frontrunner, but I'm using it.

But there's also Republicans who are talking about it: Congressman Trent Franks, former Congressman J.D. Hayworth. Steve Shadegg, a congressman who just retired last year, may run. Joe Arpaio, the very controversial...

CONAN: Controversial.

RUDIN: ...sheriff, is talking about running, and he's pushing out a poll that shows that he's ahead. And...

CONAN: What about the Democratic side?

RUDIN: Well, that's a good question. One of the people who have been mentioned for the longest time is Janet Napolitano. She was term-limited as governor in 2010, but she left before that to join the Obama Cabinet. There's some talk about her running.

There is something that I'm very squeamish and almost angry to hear about. They're talking about Gabrielle Giffords. Now, we don't even know if Gabrielle Giffords can talk, can, you know, what her mental capacities are. But there are some people saying: Well, she'd be the greatest candidate, and let's see if we could get her to run. To me, that's beyond the pale. But, you know, it's a tough state for Democrats.

CONAN: Interesting, some of her friends in Congress are mounting a campaign to raise some money for her for her next congressional election campaign.

RUDIN: Well, she barely survived - well, I'm sorry to talk in those terms. I'm not being cute or anything - in 2010, she barely defeated, I think it was Jesse Kelly, a Tea Party folk who really ran a very strong race and is planning to run again. And then, they're raising money for her 2012 campaign.

CONAN: We have some people on the line who think they know the answer to this week's trivia question, and that is the last person to be in Congress and run for president under the banner of two different political parties, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org.

And we'll start with Tim(ph), and Tim's with us from Albemarle in North Carolina.

TIM (Caller): Yes, my guess is Strom Thurmond.

RUDIN: Well, Strom Thurmond did run for president in 1948. Of course, he later served in the Senate. Back then, he was the governor of South Carolina, ran as a third-party candidate.

CONAN: A Dixiecrat.

RUDIN: Dixiecrat, or the States' Rights Party, official term. And yet that's the only time he ran for president was 1948, just that one time under one party.

CONAN: Tim, thanks very much for the call. Let's see if we can go next to - this is Dillon(ph), Dillon with us from Northfield in New Jersey.

DILLON (Caller): Yes, I'm guessing Mike Gravel.

CONAN: Mike Gravel of Alaska.

RUDIN: Well, Mike Gravel did run for the Democratic nomination for president, and there was some talk about him perhaps running on a third-party candidate, but he only ran as a Democrat in 2004.

CONAN: 2004, all right.

DILLON: He didn't run as a libertarian in '08?

CONAN: No, I don't think so. Wait a minute. Ken is pursing his lips.

RUDIN: He was mentioned as a possible Libertarian Party candidate. I don't think he ever declared. If it's true, we will check that, and he will get a T-shirt, but we'll see. I don't think he ever declared his nomination, but he was talking about it.

CONAN: All right, Dillon, we're going to put you on hold and collect your particulars in the unlikely event that you turn out to be a winner.

DILLON: Thank you very much.

RUDIN: Of course, Bob Barr was...

CONAN: Bob Barr was the...

RUDIN: The libertarian nominee, and of course, the name of that song: Bob, Bob Barr, Bob...

CONAN: Barbara Ann, yes. All right, let's see if we can go next to Rich(ph), and Rich with us from Glastonbury in Connecticut.

RICH (Caller): Hi. You know, I was thinking Strom Thurmond, but I am going to change my guess and go with Robert La Follette.

CONAN: Bob - "Fighting Bob" La Follette.

RUDIN: Well, Bob La Follette of Wisconsin did run for president under two parties. He was a Progressive Party nominee in 1916, also ran for the Republican nomination. But, alas, he is not the most recent member of Congress, former member of Congress, to do this.

RICH: Well, it was a wild guess.

RUDIN: But it was a good guess.

CONAN: Any show that mentions Bob La Follette, that was a good show. Let's see if we can go next to - this is John(ph) and John with us from Willow in Alaska.

JOHN (Caller): Hi, I've had second thoughts since my original guess. I was going to say John Connelly(ph), but the original guess was John Anderson.

RUDIN: Well, John Anderson is the correct answer.

CONAN: Ding, ding, ding.

RUDIN: John Anderson, in the same year. He was a Republican congressman from Illinois. In the same year, he sought the Republican nomination for president. When he didn't get that, he ran as an independent, picked Pat Lucey of Wisconsin as his running mate, and some Carter people still -Jimmy Carter people still resent that candidacy. John Anderson is the correct answer.

CONAN: Congratulations, John, and we're going to put you on hold and collect your particulars, and we will send you a Political Junkie no-prize T-shirt in exchange for your promise to send us a digital picture we can post on our Wall of Shame.

JOHN: Of course.

CONAN: All right. Well, congratulations.

RUDIN: And we will check the Mike Gravel thing.

CONAN: And we'll check the Mike Gravel thing, and let's make sure I hit the hold button and not the hang-up button.

Anyway, moving right along, we were expecting a special congressional election in California after Jane Harman announced plans to leave.

RUDIN: And we'll get that.

CONAN: And we'll get that - unexpected one in upstate New York.

RUDIN: Well, there's something about upstate New York. Of course, we had "Tickle-Me" Eric Massa, the Democrat who resigned after tickling male members of his staff. And now we have Chris Lee, an up-and-coming, you know, member of Congress, Republican from the Buffalo suburbs, member of the Ways and Means Committee, who took off his shirt, you know, and posted a photo of himself on Craigslist, answering a response to an ad.

I mean, Gawker, the website Gawker, released this picture and the email correspondence between Congressman Lee and this woman at 2:33 in the afternoon on Monday. By 6 p.m., he had resigned from Congress.

I mean, I know shirt happens, but...

(Soundbite of laughter)

RUDIN: Sorry, but this is just remarkable how quickly this happened, no long, drawn-out thing like Charlie Rangel or even like John Ensign in Nevada, who is still talking about running for re-election in 2012.

But, I mean, we don't know if John Boehner pushed him out, or the leadership pushed him out. They said they did not. But the point is he was gone within hours, which is pretty remarkable.

CONAN: Speaking of John Ensign, he is in some political difficulty.

RUDIN: Well, he certainly is. You know, he had - he, of course, had the affair with the wife of his best friend and then tried to get - push lobbying activity, business opportunities, towards this way, and he's being investigated by the Senate Ethics Committee.

He's also planning to run for re-election in Nevada, 2012, but Dean Heller, the congressman there, in a recent poll, Heller had a 15-point lead. My guess is that Ensign can't survive a primary and probably will not run.

CONAN: In the meantime, we're talking about all this speculation about 2012 and all these other things. There's actually an election next week, and at his news conference yesterday, President Obama was asked if he's been helping one of the candidates for mayor in Chicago, his former chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel.

President BARACK OBAMA: I don't have to make calls for Rahm Emanuel. He seems to be doing just fine on his own.

CONAN: And he noted that it's a lot of fun to watch Rahm shoveling snow there in Chicago. He hasn't done that much around the White House.

RUDIN: Well, he was shoveling a lot of stuff at the White House, but it wasn't snow. But the point is the election is February 22nd, next Tuesday. The only suspense in Chicago is whether he gets 50 percent of the vote to avoid an April 5 runoff.

It looks like right now, the last Chicago Tribune poll had him at 49 percent, huge lead over his other contenders. Rahm Emanuel will be the next mayor of Chicago.

CONAN: Let's get back to baseless speculation.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: New Hampshire, of course, the first-in-the-nation primary, and Mitt Romney, former governor of the state next door, Massachusetts, has been doing a lot of work to get ready for the primary up there in the event that he decides to run for president of the United States, shows that he's ahead in the winter book.

RUDIN: Well, we're smiling - well, in the event he runs. Of course, he said that at the CPAC conference last week, that, you know, if I decide to run. And everybody started laughing. I don't think it was an intentional laugh line, but he did get laughs out of it.

First of all, let's just talk about something: 11 months to go before the New Hampshire primary. On the day of the 2008 primary in New Hampshire, Barack Obama had the lead. Hillary Clinton won the primary.

So here we are talking about polls 11 months in advance. So of course, anything could happen. Right now - I think four years ago at this time, Mitt Romney also had a lead in New Hampshire, and of course, John McCain won the primary.

CONAN: In the other event, of course, there is that CPAC straw poll that we mentioned earlier, and the victor, of course, Ron Paul. Donald Trump addressed the conference and had this to say about that.

Mr. DONALD TRUMP (Businessman): By the way, Ron Paul cannot get elected, I'm sorry to say.

(Soundbite of boos)

CONAN: But he sure can win straw polls.

RUDIN: He does. He has a very committed bunch of supporters. They know how to work the straw polls. And he won CPAC last year, as well. He won many state straw polls in 2008. The question is whether that can be transferred into a presidential bid in 2012.

But the Republican Party in 2012 is different than it's been in the past with more Tea Party activity. Let's just see what happens.

CONAN: And Alvin Greene could use that kind of an organization. He got fewer than 40 votes for South Carolina Legislature earlier this week. So anyway, we'll be back with the chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, Kent Conrad, in just a minute. So stay with us. Political junkie Ken Rudin is with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

It's Wednesday. Political junkie Ken Rudin is with us, as always. For now, a cost-cutting edition of the segment. We keep trying to trim Ken's budget for campaign buttons, but he can't seem to keep them off eBay. You can check out his ScuttleButton puzzle and his column and his podcast all at npr.org/junkie.

President Obama this week kicked off a blistering debate over the 2012 budget, what to cut, where and by how much. So far, it does not look like he's entirely pleased anybody, right, left or center.

Joining us on the phone from his office on Capitol Hill is Senator Kent Conrad, Democrat from North Dakota, chairman of the Senate Budget Committee.

Senator Conrad, nice to have you with us today.

Senator KENT CONRAD (Democrat, North Dakota): Thank you for asking me on.

CONAN: Did the president give you something you can work with?

Sen. CONRAD: yeah, I think he's, you know, given us a beginning. Understandably, you know, lots of differences of opinions on where we go from here. But I think he's got it about right for the first year or 18 months.

For the longer term, obviously we're going to have to do more in terms of addressing our long-term debt.

CONAN: Well, in that sense, you were a member of the fiscal commission and voted for a plan that could have saved, over many years, trillions from the budget. Does the president's plan even begin to incorporate the suggestions of the commission?

Sen. CONRAD: Well, it does begin to. He acknowledges that there are a whole series of changes that have to be made. You know, the commission came up with $4 trillion of savings over the next 10 years. And that's about the level of savings we need to achieve in order to get us back on track as a nation.

Virtually every expert has said when you get to a gross debt of more than 100 percent of the size of your economy, which is where we are now, you're in the danger zone. In fact, two professors, Carmen Reinhart and Ken Rogoff, did a study of 200 years of financial crises in 44 countries, and they determined that once you have a gross debt of more than 90 percent of your gross domestic product, your future economic prospects are diminished and diminished substantially.

And, of course, as I've said, our gross debt this year is going to be over 100 percent of our GDP. So we're past the danger zone. And it really requires action not immediately, because the economy is still too weak for substantial changes, but to begin modestly but put in place a plan that, over time, really makes a big difference.

CONAN: When you say the economy is too weak to absorb substantial changes just at the moment. Does that suggest that you would not be tremendously receptive to a current-year budget that the House of Representatives is working on right now that, if they end up making the kinds of cuts they're talking about, $61 billion?

Sen. CONRAD: I think they go too far. I think they are making cuts that are unwise, and they're trying to solve the problem by dealing with only 12 percent of the budget, that is non-security, domestic discretionary spending. There's only a fraction of the budget, and they're trying to balance it all on just that small slice. It really isn't a very well-thought-out plan.

And, you know, if you look at the roadmap their chairman has laid out, Chairman Ryan, he doesn't balance the budget for 53 years. And in the meantime, he dramatically increases the debt.

So it's a curious plan they have over there. They cut spending, which needs to be done. I think they go too far initially. But they cut revenue even more, and as a result, the debt increases.

CONAN: And when you say they go too far, a lot of people say the cuts that they're talking about would cost a lot of government workers their jobs. Is that the issue that you're concerned about just at the moment?

Sen. CONRAD: Well, what I'm concerned about is across a broad array of what they're proposing. They're really talking about a 25-percent cut. And while the commission that I served on made very substantial cuts over the decade - in fact we saved $1.5 trillion just in the domestic accounts, but we didn't try to do it just on the non-security domestic accounts. We included defense.

You see the secretary of defense himself proposing some $78 billion in savings. And I think most people who've examined the defense budget know now that there are going to have to be savings there, as well.

CONAN: Ken?

RUDIN: Senator, my personal feeling is that if you cut the money for NPR, all the budget problems will be solved. So, that'll be fine.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Sen. CONRAD: Well, you know, there are some people who think you just eliminate foreign aid, and that'll solve the problems. You know, foreign aid is much less than 1 percent of the budget. You could eliminate it, and since we're borrowing 40 cents of every dollar we spend, you really don't even touch the problem.

RUDIN: Well, that's like some...

Sen. CONRAD: So some of these solutions that people are offering are really not serious.

RUDIN: Right. That's like earmarks. People are focusing on earmarks, and that's a tiny percentage, as well. But here's my question: We talked about the Deficit Reduction Commission led by Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles that you're part of and things like that, and we talked about how Republicans will never support tax hikes and how Democrats are always nervous about, you know, cutting entitlements like Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare.

You are retiring from Congress. My question is: Do you have to be not running for office to have the courage to make certain decisions like this?

Sen. CONRAD: No. I think the American people are smart. I think they know - they may not know the detail of the numbers, but they know we're on a course that's unsustainable.

The hard reality is that we are spending, as a share of the economy, the highest amount in 60 years. We are bringing in, in revenue, as a share of the national economy, the lowest amount in 60 years. That is why we have a record deficit. We have the highest spending, the lowest revenue, that produces the biggest deficits.

And looking ahead for the next 10 years, we're seeing, if we don't change course, adding a trillion dollars to the debt every year for the next 10 years.

CONAN: And it would take a brave politician to say let's raise taxes and cut entitlements and then run for office again. I wanted to play you...

Sen. CONRAD: It's - you know, the hard reality here is if you poll the American people, they say yes, get the deficit under control. They say yes, cut spending. Then when you go to the specifics, they reject virtually every proposal that would make a difference.

In other words, by large margins, they say: Don't touch the entitlements, which by the way is 60 percent of the budget. Don't touch that. That's Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, veterans. They say don't touch any of that.

They say don't touch defense. They say don't touch revenue. On specific non-defense discretionary spending, when you give them a series of options, they reject all of them except for cutting foreign aid. And as we've discussed, that's much less than 1 percent of the budget.

The other thing that they will say they favor is taxes on the rich. If you tried to balance the budget just with taxes on the rich, the top rates would have to be 84 and 89 percent, the corporate tax would have to be 80 percent. That would completely undermine America's competitive position in the world and cost us more jobs.

So the only way this really works, and every bipartisan commission that's considered this problem is - came to pretty much the same conclusion, that you've got to have everything on the table. Entitlements have to be part of it. Revenue has to be part of it. Domestic spending, including defense, has to be part of it, and we're going to have to find savings in all of them.

CONAN: I wanted to play you a cut of tape. This is Senator Lindsey Graham, the Republican of South Carolina, talking yesterday at a congressional hearing. I believe you were in the room at the time, but I wanted to remind you of what he had to say.

Senator LINDSEY GRAHAM (Republican, South Carolina): Tell me where I need to go and who I need to meet with about finding a way to save Social Security from what I think is an unacceptable demise. Very quickly, to the president: This is the year.

There are a lot of Republicans who understand entitlements have to be put on the table. We're reluctant to go by ourselves because, you know, this issue is easily demagogued. So I'm just suggesting to you that there is a moment in time, in 2011, before we get into the 2012 cycle too deeply, to find a way to do something meaningful on Social Security that would help our long-term indebtedness. Don't let that opportunity to pass.

CONAN: And I wonder, Senator Conrad: Is your office someplace Senator Graham can go to begin this conversation?

Sen. CONRAD: Well, Senator Graham is always welcome in my office.

Let me just say this to you: The commission treated Social Security separately because Social Security is not adding to the deficit. Social Security is solvent until 2037. At that point, we'd have a significant problem because there would have to be a 22 percent across-the-board cut in Social Security to keep it going with the benefits that have currently been promised.

But the commission did not use changes in Social Security to reduce the deficit. This is something I think that is badly misunderstood. The changes that were made in Social Security by the commission were solely to secure a 75-year solvency for Social Security itself.

None of the savings, I want to repeat, were used for deficit reduction, because Social Security has not contributed to the deficit. Our problem with Social Security is the long-term demographics, you know, a fewer number of people working for every - to support every retiree, and a big increase in the number of retirees with the baby boom generation. So Social Security, really, we treat it separately.

CONAN: As you know, a lot of Democrats will agree with you, even a lot of Republicans. But there are some who say, wait a minute. It's just crazy to keep - treat Social Security differently than anything else. It's all part of the package, and it's part of the solution, as well. It needs to be part of the solution. Is that on the table? Are things like increasing the retirement age for people now, say, 40 years old, is that on the table?

Sen. CONRAD: Yes. We recommended that in the commission, but, again, not for the purposes of deficit reduction, but for the purposes of making Social Security itself solvent over the next 75 years.

You know, the fundamental problem with Social Security is this: Social Security can meet all of its demands until 2037. Well, that's 26 years away. At that point, there'd have to be a 22 percent cut, unless we take steps. And the sooner we take steps to secure the long-term solvency of Social Security, the less draconian the changes will have to be.

CONAN: We're talking with Kent Conrad, the chairman of the Senate Budget Committee. Of course, Political Junkie Ken Rudin is with us here in Studio 3A, as he is every Wednesday. You can read his blog, download his podcast, solve his ScuttleButton puzzle, all at npr.org/junkie, or listen to him every Wednesday. We inflict him on you every darn week.

This is TALK OF THE NATION, which is coming to you from NPR News.

And Senator Conrad, if everything's on table - you're from the state of North Dakota. Is agricultural subsidies on the table?

Sen. CONRAD: Yes. The commission cut agriculture, just as we cut virtually every other part of the budget. Now, as I say, we achieved one-and-a-half trillion dollars in savings on domestic accounts. We achieved another roughly 700 billion of savings on entitlement accounts, and we raised revenue. We raised about a trillion dollars of revenue, and then interest savings, of course, on top of all of that, to put together a package that would reduce the debt over 10 years by $4 trillion.

And that would not only stabilize the debt, but begin bringing it down as a share of our national income, so that we would have a sustainable circumstance going forward, one that did not threaten our long-term economic security, one that did not put a great weight on this economic engine of America and cost us jobs and cost us competitive position in the world.

CONAN: Ken?

RUDIN: Senator Conrad, in the old day - and this is really not going back that far. But we saw Ronald Reagan talk to the Democrats in the mid-1980s about saving Social Security. And we saw George H.W. Bush in 1990 with that budget deal.

But it seems like - at least from this vantage point - that parties are further apart than ever in ideology, in the rhetoric, things like that. How confident are you that people will actually hear - people meaning the members of Congress - will actually hear this message at this time?

Sen. CONRAD: Well, I hope very much that we do, because really, the economic strength of the country is at risk. That's the hard reality. When you are - have a debt that is a hundred percent of your gross domestic product, your future economic prospects are reduced. And if we want to put America in a stronger position, we'll take this on. It's controversial. It's tough on the commission, the president's commission.

There were 18 of us that served. Eleven of the 18 agreed to the report. That's 60 percent of the membership. Unfortunately, it required 14 of 18 to agree to advance the proposal as legislation. But the fact that five Democrats, five Republicans and one independent came together and supported those controversial steps tells me that there is a way forward, that there is hope, that there is a chance here to get this done. And I think there is an increasing realization that this is critically important for the country.

CONAN: One of the interesting - one of those who did not vote to support it was Paul Ryan, the Republican chairman of the House Budget Committee, your counterpart in the House of Representatives.

But I wanted to go back to you, that demagogue question that Senator Graham mentioned in that cut of tape we played a minute ago. It is easy, as he pointed out in the election campaign, to demagogue. How dare they even talk about cutting Social Security? This is the legacy of the New Deal. This is, you know, every - this came up in the last election. Democrats, are you willing, as part of this process, to call your fellow Democrats out and say, wait a minute, this is entirely inappropriate?

Sen. CONRAD: Well, you know, it depends on what the circumstances are. There are people - look, the reality is there are people who want to slash Social Security because they don't want to pay more taxes themselves.

And it is quite right for fellow Democrats to take on those people who want to unravel the social safety net and want to unravel the contracts and the compact between the generations that Social Security represents.

You know, Social Security and Medicare are two of the most successful programs that have reduced senior poverty in the history of the United States, maybe the history of the world. So they are proud achievements that need to be defended.

The reality of what we confront is that changes have to be made. We're going to run a deficit this year of $1.6 trillion. That's 10 percent, almost 11 percent of the gross domestic product of the United States. You know, you couldn't be a member of the European Union if you run deficits of more than 3 percent of gross domestic product. Here we are, running a deficit of 11 percent.

But again, I think it's important to emphasize on Social Security, the commission's findings on that important program were not to use savings for deficit reduction. It was to use savings to secure the solvency of the program itself.

CONAN: Senator Conrad, thank you very much for your time today, and I think everybody wishes you the best of luck.

Sen. CONRAD: Thank you, Sir.

CONAN: Kent Conrad, Democrat of North Dakota, the chairman of the Senate Budget Committee. Ken Rudin will be back with us next Wednesday for another edition of the Political Junkie.

Ken, as always, thanks very much for your time.

RUDIN: I'm very depressed, Neal.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Coming up, "Restrepo." The film gives an unvarnished view of war in one of the most dangerous postings in the military. Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington documented a year with a U.S. platoon. Stay with us as we kick off our series on the Oscar-nominated documentaries.

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