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Conrad to remain chair of Senate Budget Committee

Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., is staying put and will retain his leadership position on the Senate Budget Committee, he announced Friday morning. In recent weeks, Conrad had considered taking the chairmanship of the Agriculture Committee -- a group t...

Kent Conrad
U.S. Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., speaks to a North Dakota legislative committee on water issues in the North Dakota Capitol on Monday, Sept. 20, 2010, in Bismarck, N.D., with a map of Devils Lake in the background. Conrad was supporting a proposed bill, which the committee endorsed, that would authorize construction of a water control structure on the east end of Devils Lake. (AP Photo/Dale Wetzel)

Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., is staying put and will retain his leadership position on the Senate Budget Committee, he announced Friday morning.

In recent weeks, Conrad had considered taking the chairmanship of the Agriculture Committee -- a group that will soon begin the work to reauthorize the federal farm bill.

In a Friday interview with the Herald, Conrad said the choice "started out tougher than it wound up." He said constituents and colleagues voiced the "virtually unanimous" opinion that he should keep his leadership spot on the Budget Committee and continue serving as a senior member of the Agriculture Committee.

"As we went through the process and as we consulted with people back home... it became a pretty easy decision at the end," he said.

It's the decision that 15 leaders of North Dakota agriculture associations urged Conrad to make in a Thursday letter.


"We appreciate your support of agriculture and know that you would be an excellent chairman of the Agriculture Committee," they wrote. "However, we believe that your continued chairmanship of the Budget Committee would be a better use of your experience and seniority on behalf of North Dakota agriculture, as well as to our country during these challenging times for our nation's budget."

Conrad said he still had several weeks until he'd have to make up his mind, but said the letter helped him make a final decision by Thursday.

"I was certainly leaning that way because of all the contacts we'd already done, but I thought that letter really cemented it," he said.

'A wise move'

Conrad became Budget Committee chairman in 2001, lost the post after Democrats lost control of the Senate in 2002 and returned as chairman in 2007.

The possibility of Conrad switching chairmanships came up with the Election Day defeat of Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., the agriculture panel's current chairwoman.

Robert Carlson, president of the North Dakota Farmers Association, said he started thinking about the possible leadership switch shortly after Lincoln's defeat.

"I've always figured that whatever decision he made would be the right one because he knows the lay of the land," he said.


But he was one of 15 North Dakota agriculture leaders that sent the letter to Conrad urging him to stay put.

Carlson said it's important because lawmakers are focusing on reducing the federal deficit -- and some in Congress are calling for big cuts or even the elimination of agriculture subsidies as one part of addressing that shortfall.

"There are very few people who give a hoot about agriculture who are concerned about that deficit," he said. "I think he's the only person of any prominence who really understands those programs and the budget both, so I think it was a wise move to stay on."

'The toughest fight'

Conrad will have to reconcile his work to advance the next farm bill with the other key roles he plays in Congress -- including his spot on the president's commission for deficit reduction, a bipartisan panel which released a draft proposal earlier this month that includes cuts to farm subsidies.

He pointed out that the last farm bill was fully paid for and "didn't add a dime to the deficit."

"If other parts of federal spending were as responsible as agriculture, we wouldn't have a problem," he said.

Still, Conrad acknowledged it will be tough to get the needed resources for the farm bill as lawmakers search for ways to cut the deficit. He said it's a "pretty lonely fight" to work to secure funding in a Congress that isn't focused on agricultural issues.


"The global agricultural picture is something that most people don't spend a lot of time thinking about, but I do," he said. "I've always been interested in agriculture, and we've got a big educational job to do."

"I think this is going to be the toughest fight we've ever had over a farm bill, given the condition of the federal budget, given attitudes especially in the national media and given the philosophy of some of the new House leadership that are very antagonistic toward production agriculture. We've got a really tough row to hoe."

Johnson reports on local politics. Reach him at (701) 780-1105; (800) 477-6572, ext. 105; or send e-mail to rjohnson@gfherald.com .

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