K Street welcomes Lincoln as the new head of Ag committee

Lobbyists for powerful farming interests are happy Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) took the gavel of the Senate Agriculture Committee.

Many predict the chairmanship will be a political boon for Lincoln, who is up for reelection in 2010, as agriculture has significant sway in Arkansas.

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In addition, K Street predicts the conservative Democrat will have a different political style than her more liberal predecessor — Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), who will chair the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee — as well as give the South a powerful duo in the Senate with Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) as the panel's ranking member.

Former Rep. Charlie Stenholm (D-Texas) worked with Lincoln in the House during the mid-1990s. A Blue Dog Democrat like Stenholm, Lincoln is right of center and will bring that philosophy to bear on the committee, the past House Agriculture Committee chairman said.

Now a senior policy advisor at Olsson Frank Weda Terman Bode Matz, Stenholm also said the new chairwoman — the first woman and Arkansas senator to run the panel — is more than ready for the task ahead.

“She will be up to the job. No doubt,” Stenholm said.

Others representing the agricultural industry celebrated Lincoln’s promotion.

“We are very happy. She is a real believer in agriculture and is going to fight for it,” said Mary Kay Thatcher, director of public policy for the American Farm Bureau Federation. “We couldn’t have handpicked a chairman better than this.”

Lobbyists expect rice and cotton, primarily Southern crops, will get more attention under Lincoln’s chairmanship with Chambliss serving as ranking member. The National Cotton Council and the U.S.A. Rice Federation, alongside several other farming interest groups, sent out press releases applauding the appointment.

But coming from a farming family, the Arkansas Democrat is more than familiar with other crops than what the Sun Belt is known for.

“You are talking about someone who has grown up on the farm and has been around agriculture for her whole life,” said an agriculture lobbyist. “The reason for the enthusiasm you are seeing is the fact she has a long history for being an advocate for agriculture. That’s been both in her House and her Senate career.”

The lobbyist said the Natural State is much more diverse in farming than the rest of the South, having poultry, pork and wheat producers there. In addition, the lobbyist added that corn is vital to the Arkansas economy too.

“Those chickens at Tyson eat a whole hell a lot of corn,” he said, referring to Tyson Foods, an agribusiness company based in Springdale, Ark.

Tyson has been one of Lincoln’s biggest political donors. The company has given more than $49,000 in campaign contributions to the senator through out her career, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Those ties have sometimes irritated environmentalists. In 2007, the Sierra Club produced a video clip attacking Lincoln because she wanted to add language to the farm bill to exempt farming operations from toxic waste lawsuits, which the activist group blamed on the senator’s political donations from Tyson.

Lincoln also has been skeptical of climate change legislation and has said the Senate should focus on a renewable energy bill instead. Lincoln could put the brakes on a Senate version of the climate change bill.

Lobbyists appreciated Lincoln’s tough questions of the bill.

“She had questions about the benefits of climate change instead of coming anywhere near close to the climate change bill coming out of the House,” Thatcher said.

Running for reelection in 2010, Lincoln was expected to have a tough race in a state that went for GOP presidential candidate Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) by a margin of 20 points over President Barack Obama last election. But the unexpected chairmanship of the Agriculture Committee is likely to boost her standing with voters.

Already, a number of local farming groups and agricultural companies have praised Lincoln’s selection. After all, Arkansas sold more than $7.5 billion in agricultural products in 2007, ranking 13th in the country, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“Certainly, it doesn’t hurt her. In my book, it helps her tremendously as well as her constituency in Arkansas,” Stenholm said.