By BLAKE NICHOLSON
BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) -- North Dakota Sen. Kent Conrad bid farewell to the U.S. Senate on Wednesday, saying he treasured his 26 years of service there but lamenting what he sees as an erosion of the spirit of bipartisanship in the last quarter century.
"There are problems in this chamber," the Democrat said in his farewell speech on the Senate floor, which was broadcast on CSPAN2. "As proud as I am of this institution -- and I will forever be -- I have detected over the 26 years I've been here a change. And it's happened kind of gradually, but it's clearly happened. We spend now too much of our time seeking partisan advantage, and it happens on both sides. ... We spend too little time trying to solve problems."
The Senate Budget Committee chairman spoke for more than half an hour, spending part of the time thanking family, staff, colleagues, voters and even his dog, a bichon frise dubbed by the "101st senator" by many. But Conrad spent most of the speech talking about reaching a bipartisan budget agreement -- and laying out a plan for doing so, complete with charts, something he is well-known for in his home state.
Conrad quipped toward the end of his speech that he was a "numbers guy" and that he had begun the speech in the 12th hour of the 12th day of the 12th month of 2012.
"I'm sure numerologists will make much of those relationships," he said.
Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., praised Conrad for his public service, saying he was a man of "vision, common sense, intelligence, and a lot of numbers."
"And they add up and they make sense," she added.
Conrad, 64, a former state tax commissioner, first ran for the Senate in 1986, narrowly defeating Republican incumbent Mark Andrews in a political upset during a time of low farm prices. Conrad had promised not to seek re-election unless the nation's budget and trade deficits had been brought under control, and six years later he announced he would step down because those goals had not been met.
He ended up running again when Sen. Quentin Burdick died in September 1992. He defeated Republican Jack Dalrymple, who is now North Dakota's governor, and has served in the Senate since, easily defeating Republican challengers in 1994, 2000 and 2006.
Conrad announced in January 2011 that he would not seek re-election, saying he wants to spend more time working on ways to reduce the nation's debt. He has not announced specific future plans. He's being replaced in the Senate by Democrat Heidi Heitkamp, who won a closely watched race in November over Republican Rick Berg.
Conrad said he hopes that before he leaves office Congress can pass a farm bill and reach an agreement to avert the "fiscal cliff." Congress and President Barack Obama face a Dec. 31 deadline to stop the expiration of George W. Bush-era tax cuts and separate across-the-board spending cuts that are the result of Washington's failure to complete a deficit-reduction deal last year.
Conrad said he devised a plan as a teenager to become a U.S. senator and followed it through, showing "the power of a plan."
"Our country needs a plan," he said. "A plan to get back on track."
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Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.