Former chairman moves to health committee's top spot


For the Capital Press

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, is out as chairman of the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee and Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., is in.

In a dramatic Senate leadership shift caused by the death of Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., Harkin will leave the chairmanship of the Agriculture Committee to take over the chairmanship of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee and Lincoln will assume the chairmanship of the Agriculture Committee.

The news is good for the cotton and rice industries and probably not as good for advocates of climate change legislation that could pay farmers to sequester carbon but also lead to higher input costs.

"Lincoln understands ag and appreciates its impact on virtually every issue that effects a farmer's pocketbook," said Mary Kay Thatcher, lobbyist for the American Farm Bureau Federation. "We're thrilled to have her as the new chair of the committee."

Farm Bureau opposes the current climate change bills.

Lincoln defended the cotton and rice industries, which are important to Arkansas, in the 2008 Farm Bill debate.

At a news conference on Wednesday, Sept. 9, she was critical of the House-passed climate change bill, saying it picked winners and losers.

Cotton and rice are two of the agriculture sectors that are the least likely to benefit from a climate change bill that would allow farmers to be paid for sequestered carbon, but probably incur higher input costs.

Lincoln also said she believes that market access for U.S. agricultural products is the No. 1 issue in trade negotiations and she is expected to defend U.S. agricultural interests in the Doha round and other negotiations.

The shift is part of the process for filling the leadership post vacancy created by the death of Kennedy, who chaired the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, known as the H.E.L.P. committee. Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., was first in line to chair the H.E.L.P. Committee, but he decided to remain chairman of the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee, leading to Harkin and Lincoln taking new positions.

Democratic Sens. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, Max Baucus of Montana and Kent Conrad of North Dakota were all ahead of Lincoln in seniority but they already chair other committees and chose to keep them.

Harkin, who served on the House and Senate agriculture committees for 35 years, said it was a "poignant" moment for him to give up his chairmanship. He will remain on the Agriculture Committee, where he has been an advocate for conservation, ethanol development and child nutrition programs.

Lincoln will be the first Arkansan and first female ever to serve as Senate Agriculture Committee chairman.

"As a seventh-generation Arkansan and farmer's daughter, I know my father is smiling down on me today," Lincoln said at the news conference. "I will continue to fight for the hardworking farm families and rural communities who provide the safest, most abundant and affordable supply of food and fiber in the world."

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., noted that Lincoln had chaired the Senate Democrats' rural outreach effort. Lincoln founded the bipartisan Senate Hunger Caucus in 2004 to help focus the Senate's attention to the hunger. As a member of the House of Representatives, Lincoln served on the House Committee on Agriculture from 1993-95.

Jerry Hagstrom is based in Washington, D.C. E-mail:


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