Sen. Reid hopes to avoid farm-state blowup

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has intervened in Senate talks over climate change legislation to avoid the kind of blowup with farm-state lawmakers that has slowed action in the House.

Reid has asked that Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), the chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, receive invitations to climate change meetings hosted by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the Environment and Public Works Committee.

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“He said, ‘I want you in these meetings,’ because of the impact on agriculture,” Harkin said of his conversation with Reid. “I wasn’t invited; now I am. Reid talked to me and then Boxer asked me to be there.

“Agriculture is going to have a seat at the table. We’re going to be a part of it.”

Across the Capitol, House Agriculture Chairman Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) has threatened to mobilize as many as 45 votes against the climate bill because of concern about how the bill would affect farmers. Even as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) staff announced a forthcoming deal this week and a floor vote on Friday, Peterson and others had yet to embrace the package at press time.

Senators from rural states are voicing similar concerns, warning that proposals favored by liberals from coastal states could put a heavy financial burden on farmers by increasing the cost of energy.

“Every farm-state senator is aware of what the cap-and-trade proposals could do to their agriculture base,” said Sen. Ben Nelson (D), who represents Nebraska and sits on the Agriculture Committee.

“Agriculture is a big user of electricity,” he said. “There’s a recognition that when electricity costs go up it can add, in some cases, tens of thousands of dollars in costs at a time when commodity prices are not what they were. So we have to be very concerned.”

Reid had said he would take up climate change after the Senate passed healthcare reform, setting a tentative date for debate this fall.

That schedule, however, may get pushed back a few weeks because of delays with healthcare legislation. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) had planned to mark up a package this week, but it is looking increasingly likely that will not happen until after the July 4 recess.

A Reid aide said climate change legislation would “likely be in the fall.”

Some senators think it will be very difficult for lawmakers from farm states and coal-dependent states to reach a compromise with coastal liberals in the House, led by Pelosi and Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.).

“People are trying to remain open for negotiation,” said Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), who represents a state with major oil and gas interests. “But I don’t really know how we ever reconcile where the House is and where the Senate is.”

Nevertheless, Democrats are gearing up for a Senate debate over climate change, spurred on by Pelosi’s intention to bring a package to her chamber for a vote before week’s end.

A group of Senate Democrats and Republicans met Tuesday to hear a presentation about the House climate bill from Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.), a senior member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, who has helped assemble the legislation.

The regional factions that have roiled the House bill have begun to emerge in the Senate.

“Those regional differences were readily apparent, in polite ways,” said Sen. Bob Casey Jr. (D-Pa.), who attended Tuesday’s climate meeting, which Boxer hosted.

Sens. Mark Warner (D-Va.), Ted Kaufman (D-Del.), Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), Tom Udall (D-N.M.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) also attended the meeting. Warner was a special co-host.

But farm-state senators said they may be persuaded to support the legislation if certain concessions are made to rural states.

Reid, it seems, has taken a lesson from House leaders, who failed to appease rural lawmakers.

Peterson and other farm-state Democrats have insisted that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), instead of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), be given authority to judge whether certain farming practices qualify as carbon offsets that could then be sold on the open market. Farmers and ranchers view the USDA as sympathetic to their interests and the EPA as antagonistic.

Peterson also wants House leaders to soften proposed regulations for coal-fueled power plants, which provide electricity for farmers, and to implement more favorable rules for ethanol, which is produced from corn.

Farm-state opposition could prove a bigger hurdle in the Senate, where rural lawmakers hold greater sway than in the House, a chamber dominated by lawmakers from populous coastal states.

Reid must also contend with lawmakers from manufacturing and coal-dependent states in the middle of the country who are leery of strict curbs on carbon emissions.

Rep. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), who represents a state with a large manufacturing sector and has raised concerns about the legislation, said there are about a dozen Democrats who represent states with coal-dependent economies.

“They’re from coal-electricity states and manufacturing states,” he said.

Concern among lawmakers from states that rely on coal makes it all the more important for Democratic leaders to solidify support among farm-state lawmakers.



Jim Snyder contributed to this article.