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Christopher Bjorke, Forum Communications, Published December 12 2012

VIDEO: 'There are problems in this chamber,' Conrad says in farewell speech

WASHINGTON – On a day for farewell addresses in the U.S. Senate, Kent Conrad’s came with a warning.

“I want to alert colleagues that mine will be especially long,” he said.

And being a Kent Conrad speech, it included many charts.

Not content to stick to thank-yous and goodbyes, Conrad, D-N.D., used his time on the floor to give a prescription for the country’s fiscal ills, calling on leaders to embrace both revenue increases and spending cuts to avoid the fiscal cliff of automatic tax hikes and spending cuts that would occur if there is no budget agreement.

Conrad, who is retiring after 26 years in the Senate, said the budget impasse needs to be solved with swift government actions. He cited past moments, including the 1997 Grand Forks flood, the 2008 financial crisis and decisions in 1993 that led to the balancing of the federal budget.

“We did it the old-fashioned way. We made tough decisions,” he said.

A plan

In the standoff between the White House and the Republican leadership in Congress, both sides need to embrace unpopular decisions, accepting both the spending cuts and tax increases that have been deal-breakers for the opposing sides.

“We should take them both,” he said.

Known for his use of charts and graphs to illustrate his points, Conrad used more than a dozen to complement his calls for raising taxes on capital gains, reducing spending on health care and cutting military and discretionary spending.

The compromise budget plan he spent the majority of the speech outlining identified $1.6 trillion in new revenue and $2.45 trillion in cuts, equaling $4.05 trillion toward fixing the deficit.

The outline reflects the conclusion of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, which Conrad served on.

Citing his own youthful planning for a Senate run as a 38-year-old North Dakota tax commissioner, Conrad said the country’s leaders need to plan for the fiscal decisions they face.

“It’s not enough to be confident. It’s not enough to be hopeful. It requires a plan,” he said. “We’ve done much tougher things in the past.”

He also borrowed President Barack Obama’s slogan, “Yes, we can,” which he said was borrowed from his first Senate campaign in 1986.

“We need more of a ‘Yes, we can’ attitude around here,” he said.

Honor of his life

Conrad used some time in his speech to criticize the Senate’s priorities, which he said have skewed toward putting political goals above the needs of the country.

“There are problems here in this chamber,” he said. “We spend too much time seeking partisan advantage.”

But on the balance, his speech was more positive about the Senate and his time in office.

“I will always consider serving here the honor of my life,” he said.

His speech was followed by warm words from fellow senators, including Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., who called his bipartisan work an example to others.

“It’s nice to hear a grown-up speak on the floor,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. “What we heard today was a real giant of the Senate speaking.”

Opening the speech, Conrad reminded his audience that even if Wednesday’s speech was considered his farewell, he planned to have a voice in discussion of the budget and the farm bill.

“I don’t consider this my final speech,” he said.


Christopher Bjorke writes for the Grand Forks Herald