Sen. Conrad: Short-Term Extension May Be Best Bet

Host Scott Simon talks with Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-ND) about the breakdown in federal debt negotiations. This week, the bipartisan "Gang of Six" — to which Conrad belongs — revived hopes of a grand bargain on a budget deal.

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SCOTT SIMON, host: Democratic Senator Kent Conrad of North Dakota joins us now. He's chairman of the Senate Budget Committee and a member of that bipartisan Gang of Six that this week introduced a major proposal to reduce the nation's deficit.

Senator Conrad, thanks for being with us.

Senator KENT CONRAD: You bet. Good to be with you.

SIMON: And Speaker Boehner seems to think there won't be a default. Are you as confident?

CONRAD: Yes, I am. I think leaders on all sides understand that that would be catastrophic. It would lead to a dramatic spike in interest rates, which would make the depth even bigger and would slow economic activity, and the markets would react very adversely. So that cannot be permitted to happen.

SIMON: We had a member of the House Republican freshman group that just came into power this year, on this morning and he actually said he doesn't think that deadline very seriously. He thinks that the government has ways of covering debts for while.

CONRAD: Well, I don't think he's very serious because the secretary of the Treasury has made clear, has been fully transparent on what that deadline is. He's moved that deadline back when conditions permitted. And I think most serious people understand that is the deadline.

SIMON: Senator Conrad, speaker Boehner says he wants to begin conversations with leaders of the Senate to strike a deal. Are you going to be receptive with each other?

CONRAD: Well, we have to be. I think all of us understand that at the end of the day we have to compromise. Republicans control the House of Representatives. Democrats control the Senate. The White House is occupied by a Democrat. That means the only way there is a solution, the only way there is progress is if the two sides come together.

And that's why six of us in the Senate, three Democrats and three Republicans, have worked for six months, hundreds of hours of negotiation to produce a plan that will get the debt under control; that is balanced, that is fair, that does include revenue, that also reforms the entitlement programs and cuts domestic spending, including defense. And, you know, that plan closely follows the fiscal commission which was also bipartisan.

Eleven members of the 18 agreed to that plan - five Democrats, five Republicans, one independent. And those two plans closely match. So I think it's very clear if you have a group of Democrats and Republicans sit down seriously, that the plan that's going to come out is very close to where the fiscal commission plan and the Group of Six came out.

SIMON: What's the - let me ask, though, Senator. What's the political effect of the president calling congressional leaders to the White House? Does that make it difficult for people on the other side of the aisle from you to give concessions, 'cause it looks like they're giving something away?

CONRAD: Well, look. It has to happen. We're running out of time here. If we're going to get a plan through both houses of Congress by August 2nd, that plan has to be in writing and begin the process by at least - by at least - Wednesday of next week. So look, we are very close to being out of time here. And the president has to be part of any final agreement, so I think he's doing the responsible and right thing.

SIMON: In the 50 seconds we have left, are the prospects for some kind of short-term extension better now?

CONRAD: Perhaps they are. But it would be unfortunate if we missed the opportunity for what the president has tried to do. And history is going to treat him very well on this question of trying to get a comprehensive bargain in the range of $4 trillion, because that's what's necessary to stabilize the debt and to begin to begin to bring it down. And let's remember, we've got two problems. One is extending the debt limit. The other is fixing the debt. And the president is absolutely right to be focused on fixing the debt.

SIMON: Democratic Senator Kent Conrad of North Dakota, chairman of the Senate Budget Committee and a member of that bipartisan Gang of Six, thanks very much for your time, Senator.

CONRAD: Good to be with you.

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