Senate ag chair Lincoln sees climate bill slog

WASHINGTON Thu Sep 10, 2009 5:20am IST

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Senate faces "a heavy lift" if it tries to pass a climate change bill this year, the new leader of the Senate Agriculture Committee, Blanche Lincoln, said on Wednesday.

Lincoln, a second-term Democrat from Arkansas, succeeds Tom Harkin of Iowa, an advocate of public nutrition and land stewardship programs. Lincoln is a staunch defender of crop subsidies and founder of a Senate group that focuses on hunger.

She will be the first woman to head the Agriculture Committee. Senate Democrats announced her selection after Harkin opted to become chairman of the Health Committee. The formalities of the turnover are expected to take a few days.

"All I'm saying is I think it (passage of a climate bill) is a heavy lift for the Senate" in a session filled with major legislation, she said.

The Obama administration has given priority to health care reform, climate change and financial regulatory reform. All those issues are within Agriculture Committee jurisdiction.

Climate change legislation "presents some issues for the farm community," said Lincoln.

American farmers are sure to face higher fuel, fertilizer and pesticide prices because of efforts to control greenhouse gas emissions, she said, but Southern growers would not have the opportunity to earn money for practices, like no-till farming, that lock carbon in the soil.

She said financial regulatory reform "is going to be a big thing on our plate," as well as trade negotiations, renewal of child nutrition programs and farm program rules.

Earlier in the day, Lincoln asked during a Senate hearing if a carbon credit market would be subject to the erratic and volatile prices that disrupted commodity markets in 2008. The carbon cap-and-trade system would be a keystone in gradual reduction of carbon emissions.

Other Agriculture Committee members also were skeptical of the proposal for a cap-and-trade system.

Lincoln said there probably will be a short-term extension of child nutrition programs this fall while a multiyear reauthorization bill is drafted.

During a telephone news conference, Lincoln said she opposed any change in federal rules on who can collect crop subsidies. Critics say the definition now in use is too lax and allows payments to people with little connection to the land. Lincoln and Georgia Sen Saxby Chambliss spearheaded the defense of crop subsidies during Senate debate of the 2008 farm law.

Chambliss is the Republican leader on the committee.

The daughter of an seventh-generation Arkansas farm family, Lincoln was elected to the House in 1992 and the Senate in 1998. Besides Agriculture, she is on the Finance and Energy committees and is in charge of rural outreach for Senate Democrats.

Lincoln is "a great champion" for agriculture, said the 6 million-member American Farm Bureau Federation. The group said Lincoln understands the contributions of the farm sector to the U.S. economy and is "a good fighter for her beliefs." Other farm groups praised the selection of Lincoln as well and lauded Harkin for his work as Senate chairman during the 2002 and 2008 farm laws.

Another Arkansan, Hattie Caraway, in 1932 became the first woman elected to the Senate and the first, in 1933, to chair a standing committee. On her Senate Web site, Lincoln says she was, at age 38, the youngest woman ever elected to the Senate.

(Reporting by Tom Ferraro and Charles Abbott; Editing by David Gregorio)

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