Conrad: ‘Time’s running out’ to pass debt reduction plan

Kent Conrad

Kent Conrad

Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., continues his work with the so-called Gang of Six to develop a comprehensive plan to cut the national debt, but he said Wednesday that he’s willing to go solo if the bipartisan group of senators can’t come to an agreement soon enough.

The group has worked for months on crafting a plan to slash the nation’s debt by about $4 trillion over the next decade through a combination of tax reforms and spending cuts.

They’re not the only ones developing a debt reduction roadmap. President Barack Obama laid out his long-term spending vision Wednesday during a televised address. And House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan offered a Republican budget last week that called for a $6 trillion cut to the deficit over 10 years.

But Conrad said the group’s bipartisan status could boost support for their plan, which is based on recommendations by Obama’s debt commission to shave nearly $4 trillion off the deficit with tax increases, cuts in spending and entitlement reforms.

“It’s the only bipartisan plan anyone has produced,” he said. “I believe at the end of the day, the only thing that has much chance of actually being adopted is something along the lines of the commission plan.”

Going solo?

The Gang of Six — which also includes Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Mark Warner (D-Va.) —  has agreed to not discuss the status of negotiations.

Conrad said they’ve made “significant progress” toward a comprehensive plan over the past four months, but he’s not sure when — or if — their work will result in a public set of recommendations.

“We operate under a rule: nothing’s agreed to until everything’s agreed to,” he said. “Every time we have some new development that has to be taken into consideration, it obviously slows the effort down.”

One of those “new developments” was Obama’s speech, which some political analysts said could bring a partisan tone to the deficit reduction discussion and push Republicans away from supporting an eventual Gang of Six proposal.

But Conrad said he was “very encouraged” by Obama’s call to cut the national debt by $4 trillion over the next decade — the same goal of the president’s debt commission that Conrad served on last year.

“He is in large measure endorsing what those of us on the fiscal commission concluded in terms of the size of the package, distribution of the proposal and many of the main elements,” he said.

Conrad said he sees Obama’s speech as a “clear indication” that the effort to cut the debt is gaining traction in Washington. Another sign, he said, was a recent letter to the president signed by 64 senators that expressed support for many of the commission’s recommendations.

“Our group of six has been negotiating for months, trying to put meat on the bones and trying to come to a conclusion around a plan that could now be enacted,” he said. “Now with the president’s speech, I think there is clearly momentum behind trying to reduce the debt by $4 trillion.”

Conrad announced in January that he won’t seek re-election to the Senate in 2012, saying at the time that he wanted to drum up support to significantly cut the federal debt and deficit rather than focus on another campaign for the office he’s held since 1986.

He said he’d prefer to finalize a plan with the Gang of Six, calling their fiscal package “the only blueprint that I see that’s bipartisan and has the best chance of being enacted.”

But he’s willing to move ahead on his own as early as next month if the group isn’t ready to unveil its recommendations. Conrad, the chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, said he’s already been verbally “attacked” on the Senate floor for the delays so far and said he’ll soon need to present a budget resolution.

“I’ve not because I wanted to give every chance to the bipartisan effort to succeed. But at some point in the near future, I’m going to have to proceed because time’s running out.”

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