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Lincoln Treads Carefully as Agriculture Chairman

As the new chairman of the Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee, Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) seems to be playing it safe.

Lincoln took over the panel in September, and since then, she’s made just a handful of hires and kept the agenda fairly light. And it doesn’t appear that the two-term Senator, who faces a potentially tough re-election battle next year, is rushing to step into controversy. Instead of taking on issues like climate change and market reform — both of which fall under her panel’s jurisdiction — Lincoln is making her first major order of business the reauthorization of a popular child nutrition program. Last week, she announced a Nov. 17 hearing on the issue, a pet cause for her predecessor, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa).

“As the new Chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, I look forward to working with my colleagues to produce forward-looking, balanced priorities on behalf of all families and communities,— Lincoln said through a spokeswoman.

The Arkansas Democrat assumed the top job on the Agriculture Committee in the wake of Sen. Edward Kennedy’s (D-Mass.) death on Aug. 25. Harkin had been the Agriculture chairman but opted to swap it for Kennedy’s gavel on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

The Agriculture Committee isn’t the Senate’s most powerful, nor is it known for taking on the chamber’s most high-profile issues. Its biggest order of business comes up every few years, and even that issue — the farm bill reauthorization — isn’t going to be a priority until 2012.

Republicans on the panel expect Lincoln, a moderate, to be more inclusive than Harkin, an outspoken liberal not known for brokering deals. Whereas Harkin used his Agriculture post to focus almost exclusively on his pet causes such as nutrition programs and eco-friendly farming, most expect Lincoln to focus on those bread-and-butter issues that directly affect farmers and rural communities.

“There’s been tremendous attention on other areas, which is important, but you’ve got to go back to the basics, which are farmers and ranchers,— said Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), ranking member of the Subcommittee on Production, Income Protection and Price Support.

Republican Policy Committee Chairman John Thune (S.D.) also predicted that Lincoln will likely be “more sympathetic— to Republicans when climate change legislation moves to the top of the panel’s agenda, while Roberts said he hopes the new chairman asserts herself and the committee’s influence over the hot-button issue.

Six Senate panels have jurisdiction over climate change — and several panels have started working on their versions of the legislation — but few, if any, Senators believe the issue will come up for a vote this year.

“I’d urge her to hold hearings on climate change and claim joint jurisdiction,— Roberts said. The issue “is crucial, if not chaotic, for agriculture.—

But instead of delving into climate change, Lincoln, already bracing for a tough vote on health care reform this year, is instead making her first major order of business the Child Nutrition Act reauthorization.

Asked about how she plans to address climate change in her committee, Lincoln would only say that she will “be a strong voice for agriculture and rural communities in the climate change debate.—

Lincoln knows what it feels like to be under pressure to act: She may be one of the most heavily targeted Senators on health care reform this year. In addition to getting hit from the right to oppose the Democratic health care agenda, liberal groups are also weighing in. recently purchased a $325,000 ad buy urging Lincoln to oppose any GOP-led filibuster to end debate on health care reform.

“She has to deal with health care and her re-election, so there are lots of balls in the air,— one Democratic aide said, adding, “I suspect a lot will be different on this committee.—

So far, Lincoln has raised more than $1.2 million for her re-election bid in a state that President Barack Obama lost by 20 points in 2008. Several Republicans have already announced challenges to Lincoln, with state Sen. Gilbert Baker currently the leading contender.

Another Democratic Senate aide said that while Lincoln is under pressure to tackle big-ticket items and to staff up the committee, party leaders are willing to show some deference to the newly installed chairman.

Lincoln so far has named just two top committee staffers: Courtney Rowe as communications director and Robert Holifield, her former adviser on agriculture issues who also did her rural outreach on the Democratic Steering Committee, as staff director. Holifield also formerly worked as the deputy chief of staff for the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, experience that could come in handy if and when the Agriculture panel takes up market reform. In the meantime, Holifield has been tasked with ramping up policy staff specializing in trade and environmental issues.

“Certainly Sen. Lincoln has the right and the responsibility to put her people in charge at the Agriculture Committee,— Harkin said.

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