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CongressNow: Obama Has a Budget Man on Duty in Senate

One Democrat rode the slogan “The change we need” to a seat in the Senate. The other hopes to make it to the White House with the slogan “Change you can believe in.” Perhaps it’s not a surprise that the two would become close, forging a friendship in the Senate that could bridge the White House and Capitol Hill, especially on budget issues, if the Democrats win the 2008 presidential election.

Senate Budget Chairman Kent Conrad (N.D.) used the first slogan as a former state tax commissioner running for the Senate in 1986. The second slogan was made famous, of course, by Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) in his bid for president.

Conrad has been a staunch supporter of the Illinois Senator, taking to the campaign trail for Obama in New Hampshire and Iowa.

Conrad endorsed Obama early, in December 2007, at a time when most were reluctant to choose between Obama, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) and other Senators who were in the Democratic presidential race. Only Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) beat Conrad to an Obama endorsement.

Conrad said at the time that it was the first time he had endorsed a presidential candidate prior to the Iowa caucuses.

“I have never endorsed in a presidential primary before, but I really believe events require us to stand up and be counted,” Conrad told reporters in December. “He unites rather than divides. He has the unusual ability to inspire and to lift people to be better. That is a rare skill and something that’s needed.”

Given this background, it’s not hard to imagine Conrad — who is known as a budget hawk with an eye on a balanced budget — ending up winning Obama’s ear on fiscal policy if the Illinois Senator wins the presidency.

“Sen. Obama will make an outstanding president,” Conrad told CongressNow in a brief statement shortly before heading to the Democratic National Convention. “He understands the need to change our fiscal course and address long-term challenges, including health care cost growth and tax reform.”

Conrad has guided a budget resolution through Congress in each of his two years as Budget chairman. This year’s resolution was the first one to be completed in an election year since 2000.

In 2008, Conrad, along with Budget ranking member Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), has pushed for the formation of a bipartisan commission that would examine entitlements and other budget issues, as well as developing a legislation plan. He has said he hopes to move the group’s agenda forward next year.

Both federal spending and entitlement policy are likely to be on the new president’s agenda in 2009.

Conrad and Obama have seen eye-to-eye in a number of areas, including their opposition to the Iraq War. Since his endorsement of Obama, Conrad has urged voters to closely examine the judgment of the then-Illinois state Senator who drove him to speak out against the war in 2002.

Jim Horney, director of federal fiscal policy at the liberal Center for Budget and Policy Priorities and a former deputy chief of staff to Conrad, fully expects the two men to continue a close working relationship.

“I think Conrad will provide counsel for Obama and let him know that it’s a very high priority to deal with long-term deficit problems,” Horney said.

When Conrad first won his Senate seat 22 years ago, he vowed to bring the federal deficit under control or return home if the fiscal picture didn’t improve.

Although Conrad had intended to keep his promise to step down six years later because of continued budget woes, the death in September 1992 of North Dakota’s other Senator, Quentin Burdick, brought him back to the chamber.

During his tenure, Conrad has pushed for a balanced budget and increased fiscal responsibility. He has regularly blamed the Bush administration for turning the budget surplus inherited from the Clinton administration into a sea of red ink while running up the federal debt from $5.8 trillion in 2001 to more than $10 trillion in 2009.

“This administration will now leave office with the worst record of fiscal responsibility in the history of the country,” Conrad told reporters after the Office of Management and Budget released its mid- session review in late July. “He squandered a record surplus and left us deep in debt.”

Meanwhile, the campaign in Conrad’s home state has turned surprisingly competitive, with North Dakota — usually a bright-red state in presidential races — turning a bit more purple this year. While the presumptive GOP presidential nominee, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), is still favored to win North Dakota, poll data and assessments by in-state political analysts suggest that Obama actually has a chance to win the state’s three electoral votes this year, which could be significant in a close race.

And if Obama does win North Dakota, he’ll have lots of reasons to thank Conrad.

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