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Conrad’s Final Markup and Fiscal Legacy

Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad is often described as a fiscal hawk, but as he prepares to retire after 26 years in the Senate, his legacy may be as the chairman who failed to pass a budget for three years as national debt shot up by $4 trillion.

It’s not that Conrad didn’t try this week. Despite opposition from Democratic leadership, he scheduled a markup on a budget proposal for this afternoon – his last one before retirement – but yesterday suddenly backed down from the plan. There would still be a “markup,” he said – but it would be a markup in name only. No voting, no room to propose amendment, no chance of bringing anything to the Senate floor.

At the phantom markup today, Senate Republicans took out their frustration on Democratic leadership, which appears to have pressured Conrad into canceling the markup out of fear that a budget would make it to a floor vote before the election.

“I want to say how much I appreciate your efforts to bring a budget to the Senate floor and how much I sympathize with your dilemma,” Sen. John Cornyn told Conrad. “At the end of a long and distinguished Senate career you deserve more, and so do the American people.”

Sen. Grassley also sympathized with Conrad. “I understand the predicament that our beloved chairman is in…and the way he’s been treated by the leadership,” he said. “As much as he knows what should be done, party leadership doesn’t want him to do it.”

And Sen. Graham conceded the same. “Clearly your heart is in the right place,” he told the chairman. “But institutionally we’re broken.”

But as much credit as Conrad gets, his budget proposal is far from fiscally responsible. It includes $600 billion more in tax hikes than President Obama’s budget and increases debt by more than $8 trillion, according to Senate Republican estimates.

This isn’t a budget plan many moderate Democrats would agree to support, and Republicans would certainly attack it at length. And that’s fine. There’s no getting around the fact that negotiations can’t begin until a budget is offered up and debated. Conrad had a chance to make that his legacy. Instead, thanks to Democratic leadership, he’ll be remembered as the so-called fiscal hawk chairman who allowed the deficit to careen out of control for political points.