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Centrist Lincoln Takes Helm of Senate Ag Panel

Count on Sen.

Count on Sen. Blanche Lincoln, the new chairman of the ordinarily low-profile Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee, to make her share of waves on Capitol Hill in the next couple of years. Lincoln is in the spotlight now as one of the moderate Democrats who has to be won over in the health care debate, but it will soon be farm issues that make her a force to be reckoned with.

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In the musical chairs following the death of Sen. Ted Kennedy, Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa gave up the Agriculture gavel to take over Kennedy's Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. That allowed Lincoln to take the top spot on Agriculture.

An Arkansas farm-raised legislator who knows agriculture and is tight with big farmers and Southern agriculture generally, Lincoln is a political centrist. She even helped launch her own conservative Democrats team in the Senate, called the Third Way.  Expect her to align regularly with Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, the committee's lead Republican, and her counterpart in the House, Rep. Collin Peterson of Minnesota, a Blue Dog Democrat who chairs the House Agriculture Committee.

Observers might guess again if they expect Lincoln to focus on lightweight stuff just because the extensive five-year agricultural policy legislation, the 2008 farm bill, was enacted. She's an energetic lawmaker with over 10 years of Senate experience and a seat on the powerful Finance Committee.

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You'll be hearing from Lincoln regularly, and her top goals include:

---Mandating more discipline for commodity futures, especially derivatives, limits on big speculators and more trading transparency.

---Revising and updating the Child Nutrition Act, which encompasses all school food programs and means about $17 billion a year in food aid and nutrition training that affects nearly all kids.

---And digging in against further cuts in subsidies to big farm operations, an issue where she'll get help from Chambliss, but pressure from many Northern Democrats and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to cut the payments. On the other side, Southern growers of cotton, rice, peanuts, soybeans and other crops expect her to hold the fort.

Her new chairmanship also gives Lincoln more leverage on legislation for which her committee has a role but not primary jurisdiction. Some examples:

---Stricter food safety laws and expanded FDA inspections. Food processors, in general, and the House back tougher action, so look for the Senate to act, too.

---Expanded trade, including expanded access for ag product sales to Cuba, which buys a lot of what Arkansas produces -- chicken, corn, soybeans, rice and more.

---And the carbon cap and trade mandate, which is in the House energy bill. She'll join with Republicans and a handful of other Democrats in the Senate to block moves to add climate change action from any energy bill OK'd in this Congress.

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