Democratic Sen. Conrad On Long-Term Budget Deal

Steve Inskeep talks with Democratic Sen. Kent Conrad of North Dakota about a long-term budget agreement. Conrad is chairman of the Budget Committee and part of a group of six senators (three Democrats and three Republicans) trying to negotiate a compromise based on the recommendations of President Obama's debt and deficit commission.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

You heard Senator Corker speak carefully about a plan by his fellow Republican Paul Ryan to reshape Medicare and Medicaid. His caution speaks to the political dangers. Paul Ryan's plan dismays many Democrats, including one who is a leading voice for reducing the deficit.

We asked Kent Conrad of North Dakota about the Republican proposal.

Senator Corker called that an interesting idea but stopped short, for now, of endorsing it. Would you endorse it?

Senator KENT CONRAD (Democrat, North Dakota, Chairman, Budget Committee): No. That really goes against what has been the longstanding strength of Medicare, that there was assured level of health care going forward for our senior citizens.

Under Congressman Ryan's plan, you'd get an assurance of a certain amount of assistance in securing health care, but over time, it may turn out to be well short of what is needed to have some reasonable level of health care in the society; and certainly, on Medicaid, his cuts would be draconian, I think, by any measure.

That's because he does not have a comprehensive balanced approach. He only deals with a small part of domestic discretionary spending. He does deal with the entitlements. He doesn't deal with revenue. He doesn't deal with defense. And as a result he has a plan that is skewed.

INSKEEP: Given that you've criticized Congressman Ryan for not going wide enough, not going to all the different, possible places you could go to close the deficit, would you also criticize President Obama, whose budget proposal did not touch every possible base either?

Senator CONRAD: Yes, absolutely. I think he does not deal in a comprehensive way, and his long-term budget outlook would add too much debt. So I think we know with divided government, to get something that is passed into law is going to require a bipartisan approach. The president's fiscal commission is the only place that achieved that. And I believe we have to find a way, before the end of this year, to come together around a bipartisan plan that gets this debt down and I think that's the challenge.

INSKEEP: You're saying neither the president nor the Republican leaders in the House of Representatives have gone far enough. But these are, in both cases, quite smart guys and smart politicians. Is it possible that what, in effect, they're telling you is the public is not ready for this?

Senator CONRAD: I think the biggest impediment to doing what has to be done is public opinion. If you poll the American people, they say they want to get the debt under control. They want to reduce the deficits.

When you then start asking specific questions about what might be done, they first of all say, well, don't touch the entitlements. That's 60 percent of federal spending. Next they say, don't touch defense. That's another 20 percent. Then they say don't touch the revenue side of the equation at all, even if it's tax reform that lowers rates. They say don't do that.

The only thing that enjoys majority support in among the American people in terms of spending cuts is to cut foreign aid. Well foreign aid is less than one percent of the federal budget. So when you're borrowing 40 cents of every dollar that you spend, you're not going to solve the problem cutting foreign aid.

INSKEEP: Senator Conrad, some people will know that you've said that you're not running for re-election in 2012. When I heard that news, I wondered if part of your motivation for that was that you are anticipating having to take budget votes that you think would be so unpopular that you'd have trouble winning re-election anyway.

Senator CONRAD: (Laughing) Well, it's always hard to know all of what goes into a decision like this. What I've said and what I believe is that I want to focus my time and attention in this last two years to getting us back on a sound course.

Look, I believe it is critically important that America face up to this debt threat, that it do it this year, that we get a multi-year plan that is balanced and comprehensive, and that is bipartisan, because unless it's bipartisan it won't last. So that's the challenge before us. I think it's critically important for the country that we succeed.

INSKEEP: Senator Kent Conrad, thanks very much.

Senator CONRAD: You bet.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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