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Who will be the next Senate ag chair?

11/03/2010 @ 2:05pm

WASHINGTON (Dow Jones)--Sen. Blanche Lincoln's (D., Ark.) defeat Tuesday leaves an opening atop the Senate Agriculture Committee, just as Congress gears up to re-authorize $200 billion in farm programs in 2012.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D., Mich.) moved quickly Wednesday to assert her interest in the post. Stabenow is the most senior member on the panel who doesn't already chair a major Senate committee.

"With the next Farm Bill right around the corner, I am ready once again to advocate for and strengthen this critical part of our economy for Michigan and our country," Stabenow said in a statement.

But the chance to shepherd the farm bill's passage may tempt the more senior Sen. Kent Conrad (D., N.D.)--especially as he faces a potential 2012 re-election fight.

"The senator has not yet made up his mind and will not do so until he speaks with his constituents and his colleagues," Sean Neary, communications director for Conrad, said Wednesday.

Conrad in 2009 passed up the opportunity to chair the agriculture panel, opting instead to hold onto his Senate Budget Committee gavel. With budget and spending issues front and center in the next Congress, it's possible Conrad will again decide to stay put at Budget.

With billions of dollars in subsidies at stake in the farm bill re-write, the question of who steers the Senate agriculture panel holds great consequences for U.S. agribusiness.

Lobbyists for the powerhouse commodities of corn, wheat, soybeans, rice and cotton, which benefit most from U.S. crop-support programs, are wary of Stabenow. Her home state of Michigan is a major producer of fruits, vegetables and dairy products.
Stabenow "doesn't have a real high profile on some of the big ticket, marquee agriculture issues," said Mark McMinimy, an agribusiness analyst with the MF Global Washington Research Group.

Stabenow has also supported shifting more resources into conservation programs, which doesn't always sit well with the big farm lobby.

But some business groups see an ally in Stabenow, who pushed for limits on the ability of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission to regulate derivatives.
Stabenow helped to insert a measure into the Dodd-Frank financial-regulation law that allowed the financing arms of Ford Motor Co. (F), Caterpillar Inc. (CAT), Deere & Co. (DE) and Boeing Co. (BA) to avoid the mandatory clearing requirements that banks and other major traders will face.

Ryan McKee, who directs a capital-markets program at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said she hopes Stabenow will "rein in" the CFTC, if she chairs the Agriculture panel.
Conrad has been active in helping to craft past farm bills, but a committee chairmanship could burnish his profile in agriculture-rich North Dakota.

Former North Dakota Governor John Hoeven, a Republican, won his bid for North Dakota's other Senate seat Tuesday, and North Dakota state legislator Rick Berg (R) won election to the U.S. House by ousting nine-term Democratic Rep. Earl Pomeroy.
A third possible candidate to chair the panel is Sen. Ben Nelson (D., Neb.), also up for re-election in 2012. There is an outside chance that Senate leaders could offer the chairmanship to Nelson, who sometimes votes with Republicans, as an enticement not to switch parties.

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