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Biden to enlist Agriculture, Transportation agencies in climate fight

Biden to enlist Agriculture, Transportation agencies in climate fight
© Greg Nash

President-elect Joe BidenJoe BidenTrump: McConnell 'helpless' to stop Biden from packing court Biden, first lady send 'warmest greetings' to Muslims for Ramadan The business case for child care reform MORE is eyeing the departments of Agriculture and Transportation as key partners for achieving his climate goals, exciting progressives by broadening efforts beyond traditional environmental agencies.

Biden’s climate plan calls for harnessing the power of agriculture to capture and store carbon while innovating to reduce its own footprint. In the transportation sector, he’s called for a massive investment in transit and electric vehicle infrastructure to reduce reliance on gas-powered vehicles.

But some of Biden’s potential picks are already generating concern from left-leaning interest groups, particularly those that want the incoming administration to surpass former President Obama’s accomplishments by using the full force of the federal government to tackle climate change.

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Among those considered to lead the Department of Agriculture (USDA) are former Sen. Heidi HeitkampMary (Heidi) Kathryn HeitkampBill Maher blasts removal of journalist at Teen Vogue Centrist Democrats pose major problem for progressives Harrison seen as front-runner to take over DNC at crucial moment MORE (D-N.D.) and Rep. Marcia FudgeMarcia FudgeNina Turner touts herself as 'coalition builder' in House bid Nina Turner raises .6 million in first quarter for Ohio congressional bid The Hill's Morning Report - Biden may find zero GOP support for jobs plan MORE (D-Ohio.).

Fudge has been openly campaigning for the job, telling Politico earlier this month that she’s been “very, very loyal to the ticket” and encouraging the Biden administration to place Black leaders in roles beyond traditional posts like Housing and Urban Development secretary.

Heitkamp has been more circumspect but didn’t rule out interest. After losing reelection in 2018 after only one term, she formed the One Country Fund, a political action committee that seeks to bolster Democratic prospects in rural America, an area where Democrats have struggled to make inroads.

“Joe Biden has the opportunity to put together a Cabinet that reflects all parts of America, and I know what decision he makes is going to be the right one,” Heitkamp told The Hill.

“We all have to make America unified to work again, so I’m very, very excited about Joe Biden as our next president of the United States and for Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisHouse Budget Committee 'not considering' firing CBO director Former North Carolina governor set to launch Senate bid How to manage migration intensified by climate change MORE as our next vice president.”

Heitkamp’s government record before coming to Congress included defending North Dakota’s anti-corporate agriculture law as state attorney general in the 1990s. In Washington, she served on the Senate Agriculture Committee.

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But her potential nomination for Agriculture secretary is already facing resistance from a host of left-leaning environmental and farmworker groups, hitting the former senator for her moderate voting record, acceptance of campaign contributions from large agribusiness and her overall environmental record.

More than 130 groups, including Friends of the Earth and Farmworker Justice, sent a letter to the Biden transition team urging them to avoid selecting Heitkamp due to her acceptance of donations from fossil fuel companies and her support for President TrumpDonald TrumpTrump: McConnell 'helpless' to stop Biden from packing court Romney on NRSC awarding Trump: Not 'my preference' McConnell sidesteps Trump calling him 'dumb son of a b----' MORE’s first Environmental Protection Agency chief. Sen. Joe ManchinJoe ManchinNixed Interior nominee appointed to different department role  Against mounting odds, Biden seeks GOP support for infrastructure plan Democrats face mounting hurdles to agenda MORE (W.Va.) was the only other Democrat to support Scott PruittEdward (Scott) Scott PruittScientific integrity, or more hot air? OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Biden proposes billions for electric vehicles, building retrofitting| EPA chief to replace Trump appointees on science advisory panels | Kerry to travel to UAE, India to discuss climate change EPA chief to replace Trump appointees on science advisory panels MORE when he was nominated.

“Heitkamp’s history of receiving generous corporate donations coupled with her voting record is a strong indication that she would prioritize the interests of corporate agribusiness giants over the needs of family farmers,” the groups wrote, saying she should not be responsible for “leading an agency that is crucial to President-elect Biden’s bold plan to fight climate change.”

“We urge the administration to select one of the many other highly qualified candidates — including several women candidates and candidates of color — without ties to agribusiness and fossil fuels,” they added.

Some of the signatories, like Food and Water Watch, have more directly thrown their support behind Fudge and are working on circulating another letter to boost her candidacy.

Fudge, who did not respond to request for comment, is one of the higher-ranking Democrats on the House Agriculture Committee. She hails from a more urban district but would come to the job with a record of fighting against Trump’s rollbacks to food assistance programs.

"We need to start to look outside of the box and, as they have promised, a Cabinet that is representative of this country as well as representative of the people who have supported them," Fudge told Politico last week. "I think it’s a natural fit.”

In addition to left-learning groups, Fudge also appears to have support from the agriculture industry. 

“She’s stood up for food stamps and nutrition issues and had a pretty ultimately successful fight or push with USDA on overturning some of eligibility and benefits rules. And she's been a steadfast defender on a lot of nutrition topics, so I think that's elevated her status in the running,” an agricultural lobbyist told The Hill.

Heitkamp, who is largely seen as the front-runner, also has support from major farm groups. Even with early opposition from progressives, she could face a smoother confirmation process by relying on votes from her former colleagues in the Senate.

“Heidi is universally regarded for being a very smart, personable individual. And of course she knows agriculture and knows it very well and served on Ag committee. And so as [Biden] looks at having a Cabinet that reflects the country, she would certainly reflect the heart of production agriculture,” said Earl Pomeroy, a former North Dakota lawmaker and longtime colleague of Heitkamp’s in state government.

“She’s certainly shown she’s got policy chops at the serious national leadership levels. She knows ag, she has an established record on support for nutrition programs and can get confirmed. That makes her a compelling candidate,” he added.

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At the Transportation Department, Biden’s list of potential nominees is likely to include Rep. Earl BlumenauerEarl BlumenauerDemocrats offer competing tax ideas on Biden infrastructure Democrats have a growing tax problem with SALT Progressives up pressure on Biden to back COVID vaccine patent waiver MORE (D-Ore.) and Los Angeles Mayor Eric GarcettiEric GarcettiSunday shows preview: Biden administration grapples with border surge; US mourns Atlanta shooting victims State, city leaders push transparency to increase trust in COVID-19 vaccine Overnight Health Care: Biden slams Texas, Mississippi for lifting coronavirus restrictions: 'Neanderthal thinking' | Senate panel splits along party lines on Becerra |Over 200K sign up for ACA plans during Biden special enrollment period MORE (D).

Unions have already been vocal about their opposition to any pick that may seek to reduce the workforce as a way to cut costs for transportation systems — something they worry could be portrayed as a necessity in switching to greener technology.

“The human element of this question is always the most important thing to us and advancement of environmental goals can be done in way that doesn’t tremendously negatively impact workers,” said John Samuelsen, international president of the Transport Workers Union, adding that green goals could be used as cover by some transit authorities or companies to “advance profit making.”

Garcetti, who has backed free transit in Los Angeles, did not respond to a request for comment, while Blumenauer didn’t rule out interest in the Cabinet post.

"My goal is to help move transportation priorities through Congress and to be helpful to this new administration in any way I can. That’s what I’m focusing on right now,” he said in a statement.

Blumenauer, a regular bike commuter, is co-chair of the Congressional Bike Caucus. 

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Whoever takes over the top spot will be under pressure to transform an agency that has largely overseen highway construction in recent decades.

“We don’t need someone to be steward over a 1950s program for the next four to six years,” said Beth Osborne, director of Transportation for America, which encourages increased funding for transit.

“We need to update the program to address the issues of today.”