Arkansas Sen. Blanche Lincoln presided over her first Senate Agriculture Committee hearing as chairman on Sept. 30. Having taken over the chairmanship several weeks earlier, Lincoln spoke with Southeast Farm Pressshortly after the hearing. Among her remarks:

How did it feel to pick up the gavel for the first time today?

“It felt pretty good, I have to tell you. I was extremely proud and certainly humbled to have the confidence of my colleagues. We’re going to do a good job, work hard and work closely with folks in rural America and agricultural production and remind the American people what a great job they do.”

What about cap and trade? Are you planning more hearings? Where does that stand?

“We probably will have a few more hearings. After the first two hearings — and before I was chairman — I felt there was a need for more. And now as chairman, I definitely feel we need a couple more. There’s an opportunity to help improve the bill.

“Today has been a crazy day — hearings in the ag committee and also the non-stop healthcare markup along with votes on the floor — so I haven’t had a chance dig into the (Kerry/Boxer) bill that was introduced today. But I feel they’ll give us an opportunity to markup a piece of our own in terms of an ag title.”

What are the chances of cap and trade passing this year? Or, as we’re hearing in back channels, that it’ll be pushed off until at least next year?

“Our plate is awfully full. If we’re going to get it right, we need to make sure to take our time, work hard and get it right.

“That isn’t just for climate change (legislation) but also healthcare reform, financial regulatory reform, child nutrition and all the other things on our plate.

“I don’t think it’s a secret that the House-passed climate change bill can’t pass the Senate.

“Again, I haven’t seen (chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Barbara) Boxer’s (climate change) bill. I called her a couple of days ago to see if we could get some language from it. She was traveling. So, we weren’t able to look at it. When we do it will be thorough and see how we can add to it in terms of improvements for agriculture and make sure it’s acceptable. Without that, it certainly won’t be acceptable to me.

“We can certainly curb greenhouse gas emissions by moving forward on legislation that focuses on renewable energy, conservation, energy efficiency. But, quite frankly, we’ve already done that — the Senate Energy Committee produced a tremendously good, bipartisan bill. If people want to shorten the distance we’ve got to run, they’d look at that bill and partner it with a companion tax incentive bill that I think could be very productive.”

What about implementation of the last farm bill? What still needs to be done and are you satisfied with the progress so far?

“There are still things we’ll make sure to follow through on. That’s always the case. After the long negotiations we had in the farm bill to get to 80-plus votes in the Senate — which is virtually unheard of — we want to make sure the agreements and intentions we had are clearly implemented by the (Obama) administration.”

Are you satisfied with the way USDA is interpreting the payment limit rules?

“At this juncture, it appears they’ll implement the payment limitations pretty much as presented. I believe there was some issue they had with ‘actively engaged’ farmers — what the definition is. Again, we’ll try and make sure (what USDA does) is consistent with what we did in the bill.”

What about the WTO cotton decision a few weeks back? Have you had any contact with the USTR?

“I did meet with Ron Kirk, USTR ambassador, yesterday. I brought that up. There’s still the option of challenging the (WTO) decision and coming back with some type of negotiations.

“I think that (U.S. trade representatives) are at first reluctant to look at that. But they’re open-minded if they feel we can back it up.

“I was a bit concerned, quite frankly, that the (WTO) decisions were made on old information. They were using what they call ‘consistent information’ in terms of data — probably back to 2002-03. But there were considerable changes made to (U.S. cotton) programs in 2005 and 2007 that weren’t accounted for in the decision-making in that case. Obviously, looking at the statistics today — the decrease in U.S. cotton production and the increase in Brazilian cotton production — there are definitely points to still be made.

“I’ll encourage it if we have an opportunity to have a better outcome. I think they’re negotiating about what a settlement would be if they want to do one or keep challenging the case further.”

What about the dairy crisis?

“We’ve continued to deal with it as it’s progressed. We’ve certainly seen the efforts in emergency assistance in the ag appropriations bill, right now. We’ve seen the export initiative that the (USDA) secretary (Tom Vilsack) has come out with.

“There have been efforts to keep our dairy farmers solvent. They’re working at prices less than half what they were at this time last year. … We’ve got to get them through this difficult time.”

What will be your approach to trade negotiations?

“I’ve been consistent that if and when WTO talks resume, we make it clear that we can’t start from the same framework we left. Under President Bush, who made the offer, agriculture had considerable cuts in our assistance — our safety net — programs.

“The idea was other countries would follow, fall in line, and make the same offers of reductions of safety net reductions. But it didn’t happen.

“For that to be the beginning framework would be very detrimental for us. I know it’s tough to unwind those but, at some point, we’ve got to stand up and say ‘we’re starting over here. We’ve got a new administration and these were offers made without response.’”

e-mail: dbennett@farmpress.com