RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
STEVE INSKEEP, host;
And I'm Steve Inskeep. We've been talking with a man who wants to trim President Obama's plan to spend $3.6 trillion. We found Kent Conrad in the halls of a Senate office building. He's dividing his attention between the flood of deficits in Washington and actual floods in his home state.
Senator KENT CONRAD (Democrat, North Dakota): We are fighting floods all over North Dakota, all of this being done in the midst of a blizzard that dumped 12 to 18 inches of snow in various parts of the state.
INSKEEP: Floods during a blizzard. I wonder if that's some kind of metaphor for the budget situation you're in right now.
Sen. CONRAD: Yeah.
INSKEEP: Senator Conrad chairs the Budget Committee. He's one of the key lawmakers handling President Obama's proposed budget, and he's a long-time critic of deficit spending. The trouble is, he also wants to keep the president's biggest priorities like changes to health care and energy, and a budget the Democrat proposed this week still has big deficits.
Are you entirely comfortable putting your name on a budget that has so many trillions of dollars in debt involved in it?
Sen. CONRAD: Look, it's my worst nightmare. I believe very strongly that debts at the levels that are being projected now run very serious risks for this country.
INSKEEP: Have you really cut the amount of spending and the amount of deficits compared to President Obama's budget plan?
Sen. CONRAD: Oh yes, I have. And anybody that doubts that ought to come to some of the meetings and see the reactions as a result. I have cut $608 billion from what the deficits would otherwise have been. These are real changes, not just my saying so, but scored by the Congressional Budget Office.
INSKEEP: Although we can't get into all the details here. You're aware of the criticism that some of those changes have to do with accounting, how you account for something like the alternative minimum tax. Without going into that, what's something that you anticipate having a lot less of that you will have to restrain spending on?
Sen. CONRAD: For example, in this first year, international accounts we've cut by $4 billion.
INSKEEP: That's foreign aid?
Sen. CONRAD: That's foreign aid. Four billion dollars less than the president advocated. The president talked about a TARP 2, $250 billion to provide economic recovery for banks. We don't provide that funding in this budget. The five year savings there is a $125 billion.
INSKEEP: Sounds like real money, unless of course you're in the end forced to spend it and you just haven't budgeted for it. Is that possible?
Sen. CONRAD: Well, that is - that is possible. You could have a circumstance in which the president makes a determination that even though it's not in the budget, there is an emergency need. But the fact is, we don't have - we don't even have a formal request before us.
INSKEEP: Are you saying we just want to wait on that? Are you saying we want to make the budget look a little better? Or are you saying - honestly, Mr. President, you're not going to get any more money for a bank bail out, you're probably not going to get that?
Sen. CONRAD: We're not going to fund 125 billion over the next five years when there is no plan as to how to use the money and no assertion by the administration that they're even certain it would be needed. You know, when you lose $2.3 trillion in a revenue forecast, we simply can't budget money for things that are theoretical.
INSKEEP: Does it remain realistic for the president to pursue his key priorities at this time, such as changes in energy policy, health care for more Americans?
Sen. CONRAD: Oh, absolutely. In fact, we do embrace the president's priorities. A thing he said to me when I had to deliver the bad news to him, that we were losing trillions of dollars from the forecast, he said to me, do everything you can to preserve my key priorities. Reducing our dependence on foreign energy -that is critically important to America's economic future. Excellence in education - if we're not the best educated, we're not going to be the most powerful for very long. And health care reform, which is the 800-pound gorilla. That is the thing that could swamp this boat. Because one in every six dollars in our economy is going for health care, so we must have health care reform.
And the fourth thing the president asked me is to cut the deficit by more than half, which economists say will make the debt sustainable, and we do that in this budget. In the fifth year we get to a deficit that is 2.9 percent of GDP, down from some 12 and a half percent of GDP now.
INSKEEP: You mentioned the huge cost of health care that's going up. The president has described his health care spending as an investment, because he argues eventually if you get things fixed you can bring that percentage down again. Do you think that it can be brought down in time, given that when you get five, six, seven, eight years out you really don't like what you're looking at?
Sen. CONRAD: There is a race going on here to have savings in the health care accounts. We're saying in this budget that these things have to be paid for. The thing that I have said repeatedly to the administration and the chairman of the Finance Committee is if we don't get a hold of long term costs in health care, it fundamentally threatens not just the budget of the United States but the economic position of our country as well as the budgets of individual American families all across the country.
INSKEEP: Some Republicans have used the word bankruptcy. If things don't work out as hoped, as planned, is that a real possibility?
Sen. CONRAD: You know, it's really not much of a possibility because governments can print money. We know the history. Governments can inflate their way out of debt, but that has consequences, doesn't it? So when our Republican friends use that word, it's not reality. What is a real threat is a precipitous decline in the value of the dollar and the threat that would pose to the economic security of the country.
INSKEEP: Senator Kent Conrad of North Dakota, thanks very much.
Sen. CONRAD: You bet.
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