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Sen. Conrad may leave Budget Committee to chair Senate Ag Committee

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Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., may leave his powerful position as chairman of the Senate Budget Committee to take the chairmanship of the Agriculture Committee, The Hill political blog reported this week.

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A key factor in his deliberations: the scheduled reauthorization of the federal farm bill, "hugely important to my state," he told the Washington, D.C.-based blog.

Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., who chairs the agriculture panel, was defeated for re-election last week. Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., won his race for another term but will lose his chairmanship of the House Agriculture Committee as Republicans assume control in the House.

"I represent the state of North Dakota and I'm talking to constituents and talking to colleagues about where do people think it would be most valuable for me to be," Conrad said, according to The Hill's report. "Those conversations are continuing."

Conrad's office did not immediately respond to requests for an interview today.

The Hill report noted that Conrad faces reelection in 2012 "in a Republican-leaning state where farming is a big part of the economy," and the defeat last week of longtime colleague Rep. Earl Pomeroy, D-N.D., was "a shot across the bow."

But his work as budget chairman also affects North Dakotans, Conrad said.

"The biggest problem facing the country is this budget challenge, and my state is affected by the decisions made here, too, even though my state is in better shape than virtually any other state," he said. "But we won't be for long if we don't deal with the underlying problem," a reference to the national government's $1.5 trillion projected deficit for 2010.

Conrad, a former state tax commissioner, became Budget Committee chairman in 2001. He lost the post when Democrats lost control of the Senate following the 2002 elections but returned as chairman when Democrats regained the majority in 2007.

Conrad appeared on MSNBC and ABC news shows this morning to say he hopes President Barack Obama and Congress can come to an agreement by the end of the year on passing middle class tax cuts, which probably will require extending all of the so-called Bush tax cuts.

Obama appeared to signal this week that he was open to compromise on the tax cuts, and Conrad told ABC News he would support that.

"I think the President's remarks are constructive," Conrad said, according to the report at ABC.com. "As you know I proposed some weeks ago that we extend all the tax cuts for a period of time until we are able to fundamentally reform the tax system. Because that is what is required in part here along with spending reductions. Both are going to have to be done if we are going to get out of this deep hole."

Conrad serves on the president's commission for deficit reduction, a bipartisan panel which came out Wednesday with a draft proposal that drew immediate fire from interest groups across the political spectrum. The draft proposal includes tax increases and plans to cut entitlement, including social security and Medicare -- and farm subsidies.

Despite sharp criticism from both sides of the political aisle, Conrad warned that the country has to get serious about the debt.

"Instead of shooting this down, propose an alternative," he told the critics, according to the ABC report. "But (make it) one that does as good a job as this one does in getting us back on a sound fiscal course.

"If we don't find a solution this country is going to become a second tier economic power. That is the hard reality. And there are no easy solutions. This idea that you just cut waste and fraud, that's not going to do it. The idea that you don't have to touch revenue, that's not going to do it. The idea that you don't have to touch Social Security or Medicare, that's not going to do it."

Reducing the deficit will require political courage, the senator said.

"There is no way doing it that's not controversial and difficult," he told George Stephanopoulos, anchor of ABC's Good Morning America. "But you know today is Veterans' Day. You think of what they sacrificed for this country. If some of us have to sacrifice a political career to get this country back on track, then so be it. It has to be done."

Chuck Haga is a reporter at the Grand Forks (N.D.) Herald, which is owned by Forum Communications Co.

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