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Published November 19, 2010, 01:30 PM

Conrad to remain chair of Senate Budget Committee

BISMARCK, N.D. — Sen. Kent Conrad said Friday he would continue as chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, rather than taking defeated Arkansas Sen. Blanche Lincoln's place as head of the Agriculture Committee.

By: Dale Wetzel, Associated Press

BISMARCK, N.D. — Sen. Kent Conrad said Friday he would continue as chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, rather than taking defeated Arkansas Sen. Blanche Lincoln's place as head of the Agriculture Committee.

The North Dakota Democrat's decision drew praise from farm groups and the state's Republican agriculture commissioner, Doug Goehring, who said Conrad's Budget Committee spot would be helpful to agricultural interests as Congress begins crafting a new five-year federal farm bill.

The farm legislation is crucial to North Dakota's interests, because agriculture plays such a large role in the state's economy, Goehring said. Conrad “played an important role” in writing the 2008 farm bill, even though he was not chairman of the Agriculture Committee, Goehring said.

“If he's serving on the Budget Committee, his abilities to find more funds or make sure that we can fund the programs that the ag committee comes up with is going to serve us well also,” Goehring said. “There's challenges out there ... with this Congress, and with everybody wanting to cut, cut, cut.”

With Conrad's decision, Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., will become the new chairwoman of the Agriculture Committee. Stabenow is the fifth-ranking Democrat on the committee, but the more senior members, including Conrad, are chairmen of other committees.

Officials representing 15 farm groups had sent a letter to Conrad this week arguing against the change. As Budget Committee chairman, Conrad has been able to ensure that “agricultural issues receive fair and equitable treatment” during federal budget deliberations, the letter says.

Staying on the Budget Committee “would be a better use of your experience and seniority on behalf of North Dakota agriculture, as well as to our country during these challenging times for our nation's budget,” the letter says.

A representative of the North Dakota Farm Bureau, one of the state's largest agricultural groups, did not sign the letter. Eric Aasmundstad, president of the North Dakota Farm Bureau, said the group believed Conrad would do equally well in either position.

“It wasn't a real issue of which one he chose,” Aasmundstad said. “He'll serve the state in either capacity. He's proven it ... I don't think it makes a lot of difference.”

Conrad is a member of the Senate's Finance, Budget, Agriculture and Indian Affairs committees. Republican Gov. John Hoeven, who was elected to North Dakota's other Senate seat this month, expects to be assigned to the Senate's Appropriations and Energy committees. Those spots mirror those held by Democratic Sen. Byron Dorgan, whom Hoeven succeeds in January.

Conrad said he seriously considered changing chairmanships because of what he described as his lifelong interest in farm policy, and because of the greater control it would have given him over farm legislation deliberations.

“If you are chairman of the committee, you control the hearing schedule, and you control the paper flow,” Conrad said. “That is not insignificant.”

However, as he discussed the idea with farm group representatives, they “almost unanimously” favored that he stay put as Budget Committee chairman, Conrad said.

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