The leadership shift on the Agriculture Committee may not significantly alter how the Senate deals with farm concerns in the climate bill, even though the new chairwoman is an outspoken critic of cap-and-trade legislation, senators and lobbyists said yesterday.
Senate Democrats yesterday placed Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) as the new head of the Agriculture Committee, the result of a leadership shuffle following last month's death of Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.). The agriculture panel is one of more than half a dozen committees in the Senate that could weigh in on global warming legislation this fall.
Lincoln brings a markedly different voice on climate and farmland conservation than the previous chairman, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa). Harkin stepped down from the farm committee's top spot yesterday to take over Kennedy's Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.
Harkin, an enthusiastic supporter of programs that pay farmers for environmental conservation, said he would support cap-and-trade legislation, so long as it includes incentives for coal-based electric utilities and for farmers who want to participate in carbon offsets and conservation programs.
But Lincoln has expressed skepticism about Democratic efforts to pass a sweeping energy and climate bill. "It is not my preference to move on cap and trade this year," she said at an Agriculture Committee hearing on the issue yesterday.
Concerned that the cap-and-trade bill may increase costs for farmers too much, Lincoln recommended that the Senate instead take a more narrow approach with renewable energy legislation by taking up the energy bill the Energy and Natural Resources Committee passed this summer. Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) wants to pair the energy bill with cap-and-trade legislation.
Like Harkin, the new chairwoman said she does not expect her panel to hold a markup on any contributions to the climate bill. Rather, the committee may make recommendations to Sen. Barbara Boxer's (D-Calif.) Environment and Public Works Committee, which is expected to do the majority of the work on the bill. Lincoln also said she would be open to more hearings on the issue.
But even though Lincoln is much less enthusiastic than Harkin about cap-and-trade legislation, lawmakers and agriculture lobbyists still expect her to be active when farm members weigh in behind the scenes.
"Without a doubt there are opportunities for us to be able to make recommendations in terms of where we hope that the climate change bill or cap-and-trade bill that EPW is working on is going to go," Lincoln told reporters in a conference call yesterday.
And while Lincoln does not support the cap-and-trade bill now, the centrist Democrat was already a target for Boxer and other climate advocates courting votes on the measure. Advocates say Boxer would have needed to reach out to Lincoln regardless of her rank on the Agriculture Committee, in an effort to get the 60-vote majority needed to stop a filibuster and pass the bill.
"She has raised concerns about the overall bill, but at the same time, I think everyone recognizes that if we are going to pass a bill and get 60 votes, people like Blanche Lincoln need to get on board, and they need to make sure it works for them," said Jad Daley, director of the Climate Conservation Program for the Trust for Public Land.
"One way or another she was going to need to be a part of the 60 votes for the bill, this might put her in a position where she can have more input and feel like she can support the bill," Daley added.
Environmentalists largely held their fire following the change in leadership.
Frank O'Donnell, head of the advocacy group Clean Air Watch, said Lincoln raises some interesting questions for Democrats.
"Is she going to stand by some of the comments she's made before or take the position she understands the Senate leadership wants legislation this year on climate?" said O'Donnell, a veteran observer of past environmental battles on Capitol Hill.
O'Donnell added that Lincoln's new status could pay dividends as Democrats try to round up the 60 votes necessary to defeat an expected GOP filibuster.
"It's not like her vote automatically went from one column to another," O'Donnell said. "If anything, she might be more sensitive to the leadership's priorities now that she's essentially one of the chieftains. She's no longer somebody in the pack."
Although Lincoln has been critical of the overall effort to push through cap-and-trade legislation, advocates for farm and forestry climate programs say that she has been very eager to work with them to address their concerns with the bill.
For instance, Lincoln, who has forest and timber interests in her state, has been "very focused" on forest pieces of the legislation, according to Daley.
Daley has met with Lincoln and other lawmakers to advocate for the bill to include opportunities for forestry, small landowners and tree farmers to participate in potential climate offsets. "She has been one of the most thoughtful people on the Hill about the issue," he said. "I think that she and others on her committee will play a significant role in making sure we get the land-based pieces right."
"I really don't think it will be any different," said Rod Snyder, director of public policy for the National Corn Grower's Association. "The discussions have been ongoing regardless of people's positions on the issue ... the agriculture stuff can get addressed in a number of ways."
Harkin was not focused full time on the agriculture and climate issues before, as he was already tied up in the Senate health care debate. He is expected to continue to make a major contribution as a member of the committee, along with other strong voices on the climate bill -- including Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), a major advocate for farm offsets.
"Climate change is individuals," Commerce Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) said yesterday. "It's not so much committees and what your position is on committees."
Stabenow or other committee members could take a lead on climate legislation negotiations, similar to the leading role that lawmakers like Sen. Kent Conrad (D-Neb.) played in shaping the farm bill behind the scenes in the committee's negotiations last year.
"I think the committee has signaled they want to be very involved, and we would anticipate that would continue," said Liz Friedlander of the National Farmers Union, the major farm group backing the bill.
Like other farm-state lawmakers, Lincoln has commended the contributions House Agriculture Chairman Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) made in the climate negotiations on the House side. Peterson scored a victory for agriculture groups with the deal he brokered for the House bill, H.R. 2454. Other farm state senators have also praised Peterson's recommendations -- saying it would be a starting point for their negotiations.
Peterson's raft of recommendations included provisions friendly to corn-based ethanol and a switch that put the Agriculture Department, rather than U.S. EPA, in charge of programs that would offset emissions with conservation efforts on farms, ranches and forests. He also made sure the bill would allow "early actors," farmers who have been doing such conservation practices for years, to participate in the program -- an issue Harkin and other Senate Agriculture Committee members said yesterday would be key in their negotiations on the Senate side.
For her part, Boxer brushed aside Lincoln's public opposition to the cap-and-trade bill. "She's such an expert on agriculture. It's great," Boxer said. "And I look forward to working with her on all of the issues, including climate."
Lincoln is not alone on the Agriculture Committee in her concerns about the climate bill. Her skepticism puts her in line with many major farm groups, farm-state Republicans and other Democratic heavyweights on the farm panel such as Conrad.
Many major farm groups that have withheld support from the bill. Frank Rehermann, chairman of the USA Rice Producers' Group -- a crop that has significant sway in Lincoln's home state -- was among several producers who questioned the legislation at the Agriculture Committee hearing yesterday.
"We are confronted with no economic upside under pending climate change legislation and plenty of economic downside," Rehermann said.
In contrast to the Democrats, several GOP members of the agriculture panel said Lincoln's recent comments against the climate bill indicate she could be independent of Democratic leadership.
"I think it could, but I don't know," said ranking member Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.). "I can't jump inside her mind and see. It has the potential to change it."
Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) said Lincoln is in-line with several Republicans on the panel on biofuel incentives and opposition to cap-and-trade legislation. "She's going to be more aligned with where I'm at on some of the energy issues," he said.
A back-and-forth history on cap and trade
Lincoln has been far from consistent as the climate debate progressed over the last decade.
She voted in 2003 and 2005 against a cap-and-trade bill authored by Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.).
Last year, Lincoln sided with Democratic leaders as another climate bill sputtered on the floor, though she quickly joined up with nine other moderate Democrats to detail a range of outstanding concerns that had not been addressed.
Lincoln in 2007 signed on as co-sponsor to Sen. Tom Carper's (D-Del.) legislation that would cap carbon dioxide emissions from power plants only. And she also teamed up that year with Sens. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and John Warner (R-Va.) on a bill that would track the prices for carbon dioxide in a new U.S. climate market and allow industries a flexible option if prices stay too high for too long (Greenwire, July 24, 2007).
"She has really made a careful study on the cost side of the ledger," said Scott Segal, an industry attorney at Bracewell & Guiliani. "That prepares her very well to pursue those objectives in the Senate Agriculture Committee."
Segal downplayed Lincoln's recent comments about the schedule for moving the bill. "The question of when to do climate change legislation is a tactical one that's related to a lot of competing agenda items," he said. "The real question we should be asking is what does the leader of the Agriculture Committee know about the substance."
Lincoln's ascension to the top spot on the Agriculture Committee may provide a boost to her re-election hopes, though pundits say the impact of her new role may not be immediately apparent in the politically difficult climate.
Coming from a solidly Republican state, Lincoln has long been viewed as among the most vulnerable Senate Democrats heading into 2010 campaign. And recent polling indicates that the two-term senator is likely to face a fierce challenge next year, though at the moment there is no clear cut front-runner in the GOP field.
More than a half-dozen Republicans have already entered the race and at least a couple more are potentially mulling a campaign. At the moment, Arkansas pundits place former state GOP Chairman and state Sen. Gilbert Baker at the head of the crowded field.
Other candidates include: businessman Curtis Coleman, who has been endorsed by former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R); Tom Cox, a prominent anti-tax advocate in the state; Afghan War veteran Tom Cotton; and state Sen. Kim Hendren. Additionally, former congressman and 2006 Republican gubernatorial nominee Asa Hutchinson is also considering running for the seat and would likely be one of the front-runners should he decide to enter the race.
But regardless of who ultimately emerges from the GOP field, polling indicates that Lincoln is virtually certain to have a tough fight on her hands.
A late August Public Policy Polling (PPP) poll showed Lincoln trailing Baker, 42 percent to 40 percent; trailing Coleman 41 percent to 40 percent; and just ahead of Cotton, 41 percent to 39 percent. The dead heat in the polls comes even as voters acknowledged that they knew little about her GOP opponents.
The same poll also showed Lincoln's approval rating at 36 percent compared with 44 percent who disapprove of her performance -- a double-digit shift since the same poll was conducted in March. The poll even shows tepid approval of Lincoln among Democrats, and she may face a primary challenge from state Sen. Bob Johnson.
Asked by reporters if she thought the chairmanship would help her chances in her re-election fight, Lincoln chirped: "I sure hope so."
"It is certainly a great opportunity for me to show Arkansans that I am working hard, agriculture is clearly one of those things that I have fought for to be helpful and beneficial to the people of Arkansas," said Lincoln, who has sat on the Agriculture, Finance and Energy committees throughout her time in the Senate.
The Republicans in the field yesterday praised Lincoln's ascension to the Agriculture panel but also indicated that it would do little to change their message against the incumbent -- namely that she is out of touch with Arkansas voters and is working to implement President Obama's agenda.
"Anyone representing Arkansas in the U.S. Senate should be an unwavering advocate for farm policies that keep our farmers and ranchers competitive and on the front lines of the state and nation's economy," Baker said in a statement posted on the conservative Web site Tolbert Report. "Arkansas' farmers and ranchers are small business owners who must tackle a variety of issues such as healthcare, taxes, energy, and regulatory burdens that are being considered in Washington D.C.
"Barack Obama's views on these issues do not conform with Arkansas values," Baker added. "Arkansans deserve a senator who will serve as a check and balance on Barack Obama and his extreme policies."
Indeed, Obama does not figure to be much help in Lincoln's re-election bid. He lost the state by about 20 percentage points last year and the same PPP poll showed the president's state approval rating at 40 percent. "He's not real popular here especially these days because he's been identified as big government and her opponents see real vulnerability in that," said Art English, a state politics expert at University of Arkansas-Lincoln.
But English added that while Lincoln has taken some political hits during the current health care debate, he anticipated that in the long run her control of the Agriculture panel will be a political plus.
"I think once [health care] passes, this will help a lot," English said. "Traditionally, Arkansans are really proud of the achievement of politicians that have come out of the state."
And observers point out that while the political climate may be tough for Lincoln at the moment, she still has several factors on her side.
One of those is that it still remains to be seen if any of the Republicans in the field will be able to mount a serious challenge and raise the kind of money needed to mount a viable campaign. Lincoln already has more than $3.2 million in her campaign coffers.
In 2004, Republicans were unable to mount a serious challenge to Lincoln even as President Bush cruised to an overwhelming win there.
The PPP poll data also comes at a time when the across-the-board standing of the Democratic brand has taken a hit.
"Democrats nationally are in a recession right now and that goes a long way toward explaining these numbers," states the PPP analysis. "But if the economy starts turning around by this time next year and the folks in power get the credit, all of their folks running for reelection will get lifted up, including Lincoln. Republicans have an opportunity here but it remains to be seen whether they can take advantage of it."