His efforts failed — and annoyed party leaders. White House officials say Conrad inadvertently muddied their own budding budget deal with House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio). Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) — worried, Democrats said, that Conrad was too eager for an agreement with Republicans — excluded him from last-ditch talks undertaken by a specially-created “supercommittee” last fall.
Now, with his retirement looming in January, Conrad is laying the groundwork for one last hurrah.
He believes the stars may finally align after the November elections for a compromise to dig the nation out from under its $15.4 trillion debt. He is again meeting with the Senate’s bipartisan “Gang of Six” and consulting with Republicans and Democrats in the House. Their goal is to draft far-reaching legislation to tame the debt and present it for a vote after Election Day, when lawmakers will be under intense pressure to reach an agreement to avert huge tax increases and deep spending cuts set to hit Jan. 1.
If that too fails, Conrad says he’ll walk away with no regrets.
“I’d like nothing better than to be part of reaching conclusion,” he said during a recent interview in his sunny corner office in the Hart Senate Office Building with his dog, Dakota, lolling on his lap. “But, you know, I really do feel I’ve done my level best.”
Conrad announced last year that he would not seek re-election, ending his career after 26 years in the Senate, and 11 as the top Democrat on the Senate Budget Committee, which he now chairs. His wife, Lucy Calautti, a lobbyist for Major League Baseball who managed Conrad’s first Senate campaign and then served as a top aide to his best friend, former senator Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), said she did not try to dissuade him.
“This is hard. This has become very hard,” said Calautti, who dropped by Conrad’s office to deliver the dog and stayed to talk about the challenges of pursuing bipartisan solutions in a increasingly polarized world.
“I watched his predecessors [on the Budget Committee]. It was always the same thing. After so many years of doing this, they found themselves walking to a vote, and those on the left are mad at them and those on the right are mad at them. And you just have to keep plugging along,” she said. “But there aren’t that many people who say this is the more moderate, shall I say, middle-of-the-road way to get the job done. And at some point, you look at that and say, ‘I don’t know. I’m not sure I’m convincing enough people anymore.’ ”