For North Dakota’s Kent Conrad, the Time Is Now

by Stuart Rothenberg April 2, 2009 · 12:05 AM EDT

North Dakota Sen. Kent Conrad (D) is in the right place, at the right time. Or, depending how you look at it, he’s in precisely the wrong place, at precisely the wrong time.

Conrad, after all, chairs the Senate Budget Committee, making him a key player in President Barack Obama’s effort to pass a budget, and ultimately to move forward with expensive, expansive programs.

But it’s not just his chairmanship that makes North Dakota’s senior Senator a key player. It’s that Conrad begins with well-earned credibility as one of the Senate’s true deficit hawks that allows him to take on a president of his own party, both now and later.

Will Conrad continue to be a vocal critic of bigger deficits, even if it means fighting the president’s agenda on global warming, health care and the financial industry? Or will he simply talk about the danger of exploding deficits while allowing deficits totaling $9.3 trillion from 2010 to 2019 — a figure that the Congressional Budget Office calculated from the administration’s budget proposal?

Since the budget resolution is only a blueprint, Conrad will have many opportunities to take on the White House over spending and the deficit if he so chooses. And some Democrats’ willingness to consider using the reconciliation process (which requires only a bare majority, not 60 votes) to jam controversial health care and possibly global warming legislation through the Senate will give Conrad other opportunities to make a stand.

The North Dakota Democrat begins with some unique qualities and assets as a possible adversary for Obama, who has his own great abilities.

“Kent is a quiet, effective Member who becomes more important every day that he’s there,” former Sen. John Breaux (D-La.) told me recently.

But Breaux didn’t stop there.

“Republicans don’t always agree with him. Democrats don’t always agree with him. But Senators from both parties will tell you that they are happy that he is there. They know that he’ll bring a sense of sanity to the [budgetary and legislative] process.”

Conrad is widely regarded as one of the most knowledgeable, hardest-working Senators on Capitol Hill, and he has, at least in part, moved into a role once played by Breaux: the legislative broker who tries to bring various interests together to produce a reasonable bill that can be enacted into law.

Conrad, who is the only person in history to hold both of a state’s Senate seats at the same time (however briefly), has been a deficit hawk since he was first sent to the Senate by North Dakota voters in 1986, when he knocked off incumbent Sen. Mark Andrews (R). He’s been an advocate of balanced budgets (and pay-as-you-go rules) whether the White House was held by a Republican or a Democrat.

One Republican Capitol Hill staffer who is very familiar with Conrad was nothing short of effusive in explaining the North Dakotan’s skills.

“Most Members will tell staff what they need and leave it to them to do the real work. Not Conrad. He sits through the negotiations. It’s almost as if he does staff work in addition to a Member’s work. He always has paper. He has information. He knows his stuff. And when the doors close, he cuts the deal,” said the staffer.

The question, of course, is whether everyone will like the deal.

Republicans, in particular, were quick to criticize Conrad’s version of the budget last week.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Obama’s budget “spends too much, taxes too much and borrows too much” — the newest Republican refrain. But he also slammed Conrad when he complained that given “all the bipartisan praise that budget transparency received … the Budget Committee voted to put most of the gimmicks and tricks back in.”

Conrad’s disagreement with the Obama budget’s bottom line doesn’t necessarily mean that the North Dakotan disagrees with what Obama wants to accomplish. He has only suggested that he is unhappy with the cost of some of the pieces of President Obama’s agenda.

However, Conrad has indicated that he isn’t ready to throw out procedural niceties, such as the filibuster, to accomplish big changes.

Given the president’s emphasis on bipartisan cooperation and changing the tone in Washington, D.C., as well as the likelihood that Republicans would go nuclear if Senate Democrats tried to use reconciliation to pass cap-and-trade legislation or even fundamental health care reform, Conrad could find himself facing off against his own party’s Senate leadership.

Serious and studious, Conrad doesn’t possess Barack Obama’s charisma or bully pulpit. But because of his reputation and skill as a negotiator, the North Dakota Democrat definitely is a man to watch in the coming months.