Rep. Peterson keeping firm grip on gavel

Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) is unlikely to suffer the same fate as Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.).

Despite the House Agriculture Committee chairman’s vocal opposition to Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) No. 1 legislative priority of climate change, Peterson’s gavel is secure, according to lawmakers and staffers interviewed for this article.

Dingell, the last chairman to stand in Pelosi’s way on climate change, is no longer a chairman.

Pelosi and her staff repeatedly denied that she was behind now Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman’s (D-Calif.) surprise bid for Dingell’s gavel late last year. In the wake of Waxman’s triumph, some eyebrows have been raised with Peterson’s pointed remarks about climate change legislation.

Yet, Dingell’s loss of his chairmanship inoculates Peterson somewhat because few, if anyone, would believe that a challenge to Peterson wouldn’t have Pelosi’s fingerprints on it. Pelosi, in essence, has only so much political capital to eliminate chairmen who get in her way.

In fact, many Democrats – including those in leadership – believe that Peterson has strengthened his power considerably by bucking the Speaker.

Peterson is seen as someone who is finally giving voice to the voiceless – dozens of rural and middle America Democrats who feel that their interests are being ignored by an urban-minded set of leaders of Pelosi, Waxman, Energy and Environment Subcommittee Chairman Edward MarkeyEdward (Ed) John MarkeyDemocrats protest Trump's immigration policy from Senate floor Dems press EPA nominees on ethics, climate Lawmakers prep for coming wave of self-driving cars MORE (D-Mass.), and even President Obama.

Just before Peterson stuck his neck out last month to publicly lambaste the climate change bill, he gathered all 27 Democrats on his committee to outline his plans and asked for their support.

They gave it to him unanimously.

“He’s looking out for agriculture interests first and foremost,” said Rep. Tim Walz, the other Minnesota Democrat on the Agriculture Committee.

“He said, ‘They will come for you and whip you and I understand that. You’re going to have to do what you need to do,’” Walz explained.

But for Walz and other Democrats with sprawling districts throughout the Midwest, the choice between backing leadership and voting for a bill that could have adverse economic consequences at home is a no-brainer.

“Collin’s been very articulate in explaining how this is going to affect all of our districts,” said Walz.

On climate change, Peterson’s objections have galvanized the frustration – and the support – of many more Democrats not on his committee.

Last week Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio) came down to the House floor armed with a map highlighting the “regional electricity disparity,” that the Waxman-Markey climate change bill would produce.

“I can’t believe this bill is ready to come to the floor,” Kaptur, a senior appropriator said on Friday. “It’s completely unclear how this bill is going to affect our consumers and our constituents.

Negotiations between Peterson and Waxman and their staffs continued over the weekend after a week’s worth of work but have not yet led to an agreement. Pelosi wants to pass a bill through the House in July.

The measure was painstakingly crafted to survive a near-revolt from coal- and oil-state Democrats on Waxman’s Energy panel, and if it goes down it will be seen as largely Peterson’s doing.

Beyond climate change, Peterson has tapped into a larger well of dissent over the lack of a Democratic farm agenda, something that a large portion of the caucus – and a number of senators – are noticeably frustrated by.

Peterson publicly has wondered if Obama was cool to him at an event at the White House earlier this year because of his rejection of the economic stimulus package. Peterson this year has also rejected the Democrats’ omnibus bill and voted against the tobacco prevention bill that the president signed into law on Monday.

Pelosi aides contend that the Speaker and Peterson – who has consistently voted against her and Obama on a number of other Democratic priorities – enjoy a healthy working and personal relationship that predates her Speakership and includes her support for his appointment as ranking Agriculture Democrat in 2005.

Pelosi even buckled herself in on Peterson’s plane when he flew the two of them out to his district for “Farm Fest” in 2006.

Pelosi appointed Peterson to her rural working group when she became Speaker and carried last year’s farm bill through a skeptical caucus after Peterson put it together.

And whatever happens to the climate bill, Pelosi is stuck with her friend leading the Agriculture panel now that she has removed term limits for most committee chairmen. While some on Capitol Hill believe climate change will pass the House this year, few believe it will become law. So Peterson’s concerns about climate change could be voiced for years to come as Pelosi seeks to enact legislation aimed at combating global warming.

“[Pelosi] obviously understands his concerns even though they’re from vastly different districts,” a leadership aide said. “But she understands the need to have that constituency aboard. It’s part of the consensus-building process we have for every bill.”