Budget hawk Kent Conrad, who is retiring from the Senate after 26 years, has advice for both President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner as they seek a deal to avert the fiscal cliff. In an interview with National Journal, the North Dakota Democrat urged the two main players in the standoff to seek a middle ground and to be mindful that any meaningful steps to tame long-term deficits will whip up anger on both the right and the left. Edited excerpts follow.
NJ What lessons do you think the White House has learned from the debt-limit standoff in 2011, and how is President Obama applying these to the current budget fight?
CONRAD If you go back to 2011, I think history is going to treat President Obama very well. [In the current negotiations,] he’s very tough and he’s going above the heads of Congress. He’s going out to the American people to rally them to support a position to get a result here. I think he’s wise to do that. I think it is working. I also think there are things that he could do that would be helpful. Once he’s in this strong position with the public, then it’s good to be magnanimous.
And I think having members down in groups—20 at a time—would be a useful thing to do. And I’ve communicated that, not to the president, but to others in the administration.
NJ Are you worried that it is already getting late in the game to reach a compromise on the fiscal cliff that Congress can vote on before the end of the year?
CONRAD No, we’ve got time. The thing is, we don’t know what progress is being made. We don’t know how far they’ve gotten. There are two ways to consider this moment in time in terms of, do you have enough time left? It may well be that announcing it and then moving very quickly to a vote improves your chances, rather than putting it out there and then having a long time for all the interest groups to get whipped up and come after members to get them to vote against it. So, actually getting it done may benefit by a delay in announcing an agreement. The longer a deal sits out there, the greater the chances are that it’ll be defeated, because the interest groups get whipped up, and they start coming and telling the members you’ve got to oppose it for this reason or that reason.
NJ Do you know something we don’t know?
CONRAD No, I’m not being coy. I don’t know.
NJ If a compromise is reached, can Speaker Boehner round up enough Republican votes to pass it in the House?
CONRAD Absolutely. Yes, if he’s willing to have a lot of Democrats join him, and we govern from the center, rather than from the partisan foxholes.
If he’s got to have some super-percentage of his caucus to do it, I don’t think that’s the way forward. Because you’re going to lose people on the left and the right—Democrats are going to lose their left, Republicans are going to lose their right, so you’ve got to have the center to pass this in the House.
And so that’s a tough thing for the speaker. It would be a tough thing for any political leader. And I think you know, to a lesser extent the same is true in the Senate.
NJ What sort of entitlement cuts could actually pass?
CONRAD On health care, you could save $500 billion. Republicans are at $600 [billion]; the president is at $340 [billion]. I think you could do $500 billion.
NJ What kinds of reforms would you implement?
CONRAD The first thing I would do is have Medicare eligible for the same savings on prescription drugs as other health care programs. That saves you $140 billion. As Bowles-Simpson called for, I would go to co-pays. We have co-pays in some parts of Medicare and not in others. To me, the big savings that can be achieved is through better care-coordination. Five percent of Medicare beneficiaries use half of the money. Who are those 5 percent? They are the chronically ill, people with multiple serious conditions. And you can actually improve their care and save money by better coordinating their care.
NJ With a grand bargain set to dominate the agenda for Congress in 2013, do you have any regrets about the timing of your departure?
CONRAD No; you know, it’s the end of my term, so I had to make a decision two years ago what I was going to do. I didn’t want to spend these last two years running a campaign, because then I couldn’t have focused on this. So, yeah, I have no regrets.
NJ What is your next step?
CONRAD I think I’ll do some speaking, some teaching. People are just starting to talk to me, but I really don’t know. I did sign yesterday with the speaking bureau, and I’ve been talking to some educational institutions about doing some teaching. I’ve had people starting to come to me to talk about possibilities. I tried to push most of that off so I could focus; I wanted to run in this race to the end. But I am starting to talk to people.
This article appears in the December 15, 2012, edition of National Journal Magazine as Short-Timer.