Despite a much-publicized deal struck for agriculture in the House energy and climate bill, many farm groups are lining up against the legislation emerging from Congress.
The reluctance of groups like the American Farm Bureau Federation and the National Pork Producers Council to get behind the measure threatens to kill it in the Senate, according to some political analysts. On Friday, the House passed legislation, 219-212, setting up a mandatory nationwide cap on greenhouse gases.
"Agriculture can in effect hold this bill hostage," said Barry Rabe, a public policy professor at the University of Michigan. "This suggests we're only at the beginning of the negotiating process."
The organizations wield greater clout in the Senate, because members there must be protective of an entire state, rather than a small congressional district, he said. With a huge swath of the country containing farmland, the complaints raise the possibility that a group will gain the ear of a sympathetic member of Congress with the power to filibuster, he said.
The lag between House passage and Senate negotiations heightens the opportunities for the Farm Bureau to rally opposition, added Chelsea Maxwell, a former climate adviser to now-retired Sen. John Warner (R-Va.) who now works for the Clark Group. On NBC's "Meet the Press" on Sunday, David Axelrod, political adviser to President Obama, said the Senate climate vote would come "sometime in the fall."
On the same show, Sen. Lindsey Graham (S.C.), who is considered by many to be a potential Republican dealmaker on the issue, said "this bill coming out of the House is going nowhere in the Senate." In a statement, Senate Agriculture Chairman Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) also said the House legislation "is not a perfect bill."
"It is a huge problem," Maxwell said about the ongoing opposition from farm organizations and the potential delay from the House to the Senate. She suggested that supporters of the bill hold town meetings in farm states to rally public opinion as a way to get around the lobbying opposition.
Farm bureau worries about competition with China
Her remarks came after House Democratic leaders worked out a delicate deal with House Agriculture Chairman Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) in recent weeks to help push the bill over the finish line in that chamber.
The measure that passed last week contained a bevy of concessions to agriculture, including new language placing the U.S. Department of Agriculture in control of a carbon offset program allowing emitters to meet carbon caps by buying outside credits in forests and on farms.
The American Farm Bureau Federation remains opposed to the bill partly because of worries about its impact on the cost of fertilizer and fuels to operate equipment like tractors, said Rick Krause, the federation's senior director of congressional relations. The main thing that would shift the federation's stance, he said, is new text guaranteeing that the United States will toss its cap-and-trade system if China and India don't follow suit with a similar program.
"The U.S. is competing in the world markets with Chinese and Indian agriculture products already," Krause said.
Similarly, the National Cattlemen's Beef Association and the Agricultural Retailers Association sent letters to Congress expressing concern about the effect of climate legislation on fertilizer costs, which are dependent on natural gas prices.
In a statement last week, the National Pork Producers Council warned that its members have lost $22 per hog on average for the past 21 months, partially because of the swine flu crisis, and can't afford additional regulation.
The beef association's views are significant because it carries weight with ranchers in Western states, said Frank Maisano, a spokesman for wind developers and utilities.
"They can get to people" like Democratic Montana Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester, Maisano said. Baucus is the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, which is expected to weigh in on the legislation as it winds through the political process.
Concerns that some farm support may erode
According to Maxwell, the position of some of the groups is not surprising, since they have been outspoken against climate legislation for a long time. The thing to watch, she said, is groups like the National Corn Growers Association and the National Association of Wheat Growers that are behind cap and trade as a concept.
If those groups bolt, it's going to put some senators in a very tough position, she said. At the same time, senators have to be careful about making too many additional concessions to agribusiness at the risk of upsetting environmentalists, she said.
"If the environmental community withdraws support, they'll take away 10 or 15 votes," she said.
Currently, the corn growers are "neutral" on the House legislation and are not taking an official stance until the completion of an internal analysis of the bill's impact on the crop, said Rod Snyder, public policy director of the National Corn Growers Association.
"Things moved so quick in the House that we're still trying to understand what's in there," Snyder said.
Another key group, according to analysts, is rural electric cooperatives, which made a big push in the House to get concessions from Peterson (ClimateWire, June 19).
The association representing these rural co-ops, the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, said it would not stand in the way of passage of the House bill, but is pushing for changes now.
On Friday, NRECA CEO Glenn English said in a statement that the association wants to loosen the emission targets in the bill, which English said are "too stringent."
"We have much work ahead of us and must continue to improve this bill before it is enacted into law," English said.