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Published November 09, 2010, 07:35 AM

ND senator to consider ag committee chair

WASHINGTON — House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson, D-Minn., is putting pressure on Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, D-N.D., to take the chairmanship of the Senate Agriculture Committee, but two key North Dakota farm leaders say Conrad’s position on the budget committee is important to finding money for the 2012 farm bill.

By: Jerry Hagstrom, Special to Agweek

WASHINGTON — House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson, D-Minn., is putting pressure on Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, D-N.D., to take the chairmanship of the Senate Agriculture Committee, but two key North Dakota farm leaders say Conrad’s position on the budget committee is important to finding money for the 2012 farm bill.

The chairmanship of the Agriculture committee is open because Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., the current chairman, was defeated in the Nov. 2 election.

Conrad was in line to be chairman when Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, left the chairmanship to take over the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee when Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., died, but Harkin stayed on the budget committee and left his ag committee seat to Lincoln.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., is next in line to become chairman if Conrad does not take it.

Conrad did not respond to repeated requests for an interview on the chairmanship issue, but a spokesman said in an e-mail, “The senator has not yet made up his mind and will not do so until he speaks with his constituents and his colleagues.”

Peterson, who will become ranking member on the committee because the Democrats lost control of the House, said in an interview Nov. 3 that if Conrad wants to get re-elected in 2012, he should take the agriculture committee post.

For Conrad to stay on the budget committee would be “a big mistake. Look what happened to (House Budget Chairman John) Spratt,” said a South Carolina Democrat who was defeated in the election.

Lincoln also was defeated, but Peterson said he still would advise Conrad to chair the agriculture committee. “Look what happened to me,” said Peterson, who easily won re-election.

Lobbyists think Peterson wants Conrad to be chairman because Peterson wants a senator from a commodity-producing state to lead the committee.

Peterson said it would be harder for Rep. Frank Lucas, D-Okla., the current ranking member who likely is to become chairman, to work with Stabenow. But Peterson added that he and Lucas “can work with whoever is in charge.”

He also acknowledged that Conrad’s role on the budget committee had helped deliver money for the bill, adding “It’s his decision.”

A tough position

But National Farmers Union President Roger Johnson, former North Dakota agriculture commissioner, and North Dakota Farmers Union President Robert Carlson, who would be in a position to put pressure on Conrad, said in interviews Nov 4 they both appreciate Conrad’s position on the budget committee and would leave the decision to him.

“When you look at Kent’s influence there is really no doubt that he has real influence over farm legislation even though he is not Agriculture chair,” Johnson said. “He largely did the deal with (former House Agriculture Committee Chairman) Larry Combest (R-Texas) in ‘02, and he was one of the final negotiators in the ‘08 farm bill.”

Johnson also noted that Conrad had found the money to put a permanent disaster program in the 2008 bill. The next farm bill has 37 programs costing $9 to $10 billion that have no baseline at the end of the current farm bill, making the budgetary concerns high, Johnson noted.

Johnson also noted that the budget committee post is important for medical facilities, military installations and energy projects that are important to North Dakotans.

He said Farmers Union would work with Stabenow.

Even though Michigan is known for fruits and vegetables, Johnson said it also has corn and soybeans.

“Frankly if you are going to get enough votes for the farm bill, you have to reach beyond the commodity center of the country,” Johnson said.

North Dakota Farmers Union President Robert Carlson said in an interview he wishes he could “clone” Conrad so that he could chair both committees, but that he would leave the decision up to Conrad.

American Farm Bureau Federation President Bob Stallman told reporters today that he expects Stabenow to be chairman. Stallman also said he thinks there will be more budget pressure on the farm bill in 2012 than in other recent years.

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