WASHINGTON -- Chairman of the Senate Budget Committee Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) said on Sunday that he urged President Obama not to publicly support a much-touted bipartisan debt-reduction plan out of fear that it would produce reflexive Republican opposition.
Appearing on Fox News Sunday, Conrad beat back criticism of his party's approach to fiscal matters, saying it was inaccurate to accuse Congressional Democrats of not having passed a budget or not having adopted a serious approach to reducing the debt. Pressed as to why the president sat on the sidelines when the so-called Bowles-Simpson proposal was introduced, the North Dakota Democrat noted that proposal never would have seen the light of day had the White House not created the fiscal commission in the first place.
He then revealed that he personally advised Obama not to back Bowles-Simpson -- which achieves trillions of dollars of debt reduction through a mix of spending cuts, tough entitlement reforms, and tax reforms -- out of fear that it would have been politically counter-productive.
"He asked me for my advice," recalled Conrad. "I told him, 'Look, if you embrace the totality of Bowles-Simpson what will happen is the Republicans in the House will automatically be against it. You need to make the case for why it's necessary, but you need those of us in Congress to work it out.'"
Conrad's statement pulls back the curtain a bit on the often heated debt-reduction politics that took place over the course of 2010 and 2011. The senator not only served on the fiscal commission -- which was led by former Senator Alan Simpson and former White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles -- he cast a yes vote on its final proposal. That he would encourage his own party's president to do the opposite is telling.
But the advice also appears to have been sage. When the president did publicly embrace a separate bipartisan debt-reduction deal in the late summer of 2011, the immediate reaction among the deal's backers was that he had committed a political misstep. As The Washington Post recently reported, Republicans took the president's support as a cue to oppose the so-called Gang of Six proposal.
In lauding the plan quickly, Obama hoped to harness the enthusiasm for it on behalf of his own talks. But his appearance that day caused more problems by increasing suspicions among conservatives about the group’s framework -- and boosting their distrust of any bipartisan dealmaking.
Coburn, a staunch conservative and the only member of his party who openly acknowledged the need for higher taxes to balance the budget, had developed a close personal bond with Obama dating to their shared opposition to federal budget earmarks when both were senators. But Coburn was “shocked,” he said later, when he saw Obama’s remarks that day on television. His effusive praise for the Gang of Six, Coburn believed, was a tactical mistake that revealed Obama’s inexperience in the ways of Washington. It signaled to skittish conservatives that a tax hike was on the way.
Obama’s announcement, Coburn said in an interview, “absolutely killed anything we were doing with the Republicans.”