Congressional activity taking strange turns

Strange things are beginning to happen as Congress returns for what may be the first of two “lame duck” sessions following the lop-sided Nov. 5 mid-term elections.

At press-time, Washington observers were unsure whether members would return to the business at hand — passing 11 appropriations bills for the new fiscal year — or okaying another continuing resolution and focusing on organizing the next Congress.

By now, everyone knows that Democrats were mostly no-shows in key congressional races on Nov. 5. Republican victories gave the GOP a larger majority in the House and will return Mississippi's Trent Lott as majority leader in the Senate. And, unless something bizarre happens, Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran will head the Senate Agriculture Committee. No matter what political persuasion you might be, if you're a farmer in the South, you can't help but be cheered by the series of events that could put Cochran in the chairman's seat.

Back to the legislative developments, National Corn Growers Association members are up in arms over reports that Louisiana Rep. Billy Tauzin plans to file the energy appropriations conference report without a renewable fuels standard or RFS.

According to the NCGA's media office, the Louisiana Republican included only two provisions — pipeline safety and reauthorization of the Price-Anderson Act, which provides for liability protection for the nuclear power industry — in the conference report that was sent to conferees Nov. 8.

The renewable fuels standard, which would include provisions for increasing use of ethanol or biodiesel, has been a top legislative priority for the NCGA.

Now members are crying foul over the attempt by Tauzin, the chairman of the energy appropriations conference committee and a long-time ally of the petroleum industry, to report out a bill with no renewable fuels language.

NCGA officials believe that Democratic senators on the conference committee will decline to sign the conference report because of its lack of a renewable fuels standard. The result: a stalemate for this year that would give Republican leaders the opportunity to start fresh on the legislation in 2003.

Corn growers argue that a national RFS would reduce the nation's dependence on foreign oil by moving fuel production from the “Middle East to the Midwest,” as one NCGA leader put it, at a time when a war with Iraq appears to be an increasing possibility.

Senate Democrats could have less of a say on the energy bill and other legislation in the lame duck session or sessions, depending on the outcome of deliberations by Sen. Dean Barkley, Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura's choice to replace the late Paul Wellstone. If Sen. Barkley, who is listed as an independent, decides to caucus with Republican members of the Senate, the GOP would have 51 seats (when Sen. Jim Talent, R-Mo., is sworn in), and Sen. Lott would become majority leader during the lame duck session. It would then be up to Sen. Lott to decide how the Senate proceeds on such issues as the energy bill and disaster assistance for farmers. With crop conditions worsening daily because of excessive rainfall in the lower Delta, you can bet that Mississippi farmers will be calling on the new majority leader soon.

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