WDAY: The News Leader

Published February 10, 2011, 08:57 AM

Conrad Tackling Tough Issues in Final Two Years as Senator

North Dakota experienced a seismic change in its political landscape in November, when a pair of Republicans replaced two veteran democrats as the state's Congressman and Senator in Washington, DC.

By: Charley Johnson, WDAY

Shortly after Rick Berg and John Hoeven were sworn in, the state received another shock when long-time Senator Kent Conrad announced that he would not seek re-election in 2012.

Conrad has been in office for so long, non-stop for the last 24 years, that sometimes we forget this isn't the first time that he announced he would not seek re-election.

In the campaign that led up to then-tax commissioner Kent Conrad's upset victory over Republican Senator Mark Andrews in 1986, he promised not to seek re-election in '92 if he was unable, during his first term, to help reduce the federal budget deficit. True to his word, he did not seek re-election.

But Conrad never went to the sidelines, because the state's other democratic Senator, Quentin Burdick, died in September of 1992. Conrad felt free to seek the seat vacated by Burdick, and won a special election to do just that.

This time, however, Conrad is serious about ending his Senate career. But the issue that confounds him remains the same.

"The primary reason I decided not to run is, I believe this country is in very serious financial shape, and I would very much like to be part of getting it back on track. If I'm in the midst of a political campaign, my energy and efforts are going to be at least, to some extent, diminished, in terms of time focused on solving problems," Conrad said.

Sen. Conrad has five priorities in his time left in the Senate, and getting the nation's financial house in order is high on the list.

"This problem is so big, and presents such a threat to the long-term economic security of the country, that I believe we have to reform the entitlement programs social security and medicare. I think you're going to have to have more revenue, I think you're going to have to trim defense, as painful as that is," Conrad said.

As Chairman of the powerful Senate Budget Committee, Conrad has been on the front lines of the battle over spending in Washington and says any solution that eliminates the annual federal deficit and reduces the nation's debt will be painful for everyone.

"A lot of people say,'no no, you don't have to do that, social security is fine.' Well, Social Security is not fine. Medicare is not fine. The federal budget itself is not fine. We can either face up to it, or we can wait for the roof to cave in," Conrad said.

The senator says Congress is, for better or worse, a reflection of the American people, and he doesn't think our elected representatives will make meaningful progress until the rest of us are ready to make sacrifices.

"I think it's very hard to see how they will, when the American people themselves don't believe tough action is required. And that's part of the job of leadership, to tell the American people the truth, trusting that they'll make good decisions," Conrad said.

Besides getting the debt and deficit down, Conrad's priorities for the next two years include reducing the nation's dependence on foreign energy, permanent flood control in the Red River Valley, Devils Lake flooding and writing a new farm bill.