Tuesday, September 29, 2009

It’s nice to be sought after — but for Sen. Blanche Lincoln, the Arkansas Democrat who finds herself a key player in just about every major issue this year, it could be too much of a good thing.

She’s been the subject of intense lobbying on global warming and union-friendly legislation and soon will face pressures as the Senate turns to financial regulation. But for now, it’s all about health care, and the Senate Finance Committee member finds, once again, that her vote will be one of those watched most closely this week.

Some Democrats are hoping to add a government-sponsored “public” health insurance option into the bill and looking to Mrs. Lincoln for support. Republicans hope she can be a swing vote against it. And the second-term lawmaker — who is up for re-election in 2010 — is trying to find the right balance between the direction her party wants and where her Arkansas constituents are.

After the rowdy August recess, Mrs. Lincoln came out against including a public option, expressing skepticism at its cost but leaving herself some wiggle room to support the measure if its structure was changed.

“When [some in the Democratic caucus] talk about a public option, they’re talking about another entitlement program, and we can’t afford that right now as a nation,” Mrs. Lincoln said in a speech at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, according to the Arkansas News.

So far, she’s been largely silent during the Finance Committee’s debate, speaking in favor of her small-business tax credit and Medicare amendments but not much else.

Democrats and their allies control 60 votes in the Senate and an overwhelming majority in the House, but the fate of the party’s priorities rests with Mrs. Lincoln and other Southern Democrats, who find themselves lobbied from the left and heavily targeted from the right.

And as sought after as her vote might be among her colleagues in Washington, the folks back home are less certain.

Her net favorable-unfavorable rating was 6 percentage points in the negative, according to a Daily Kos-Research 2000 poll released earlier this month. But that poll also showed her leading all of her potential Reublican opponents, with margins ranging from 7 percentage points over state Sen. Gilbert Baker to 19 points over state Sen. Kim Hendren.

Mr. Baker said Mrs. Lincoln has been hurt because she is making election-year conversions on issues where Arkansas voters’ views are already pretty set.

“It’s obvious she is a swing vote on [pro-union] card check, she’s a swing vote on nationalized health care, she’s a swing vote on the cap-and-trade [energy] tax,” Mr. Baker said. “A U.S. senator from Arkansas shouldn’t be a swing vote on those issues.”

Mr. Baker joins a crowded Republican primary field, a stark contrast to two years ago, when Republicans did not even field a challenger to Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor in his re-election bid. Mr. Baker said it has been all downhill from then as Democrats have fought for Mr. Obama’s policies.

“On the day that Barack Obama’s policies were the most popular, he lost Arkansas by 20 points. Of course, Senator Lincoln is trying to distance herself from [Senate Majority Leader Harry] Reid and President Obama’s agenda,” Mr. Baker said.

Mrs. Lincoln was first elected to the House in 1992 and won her Senate seat in 1998. In 2004, she was re-elected easily with 56 percent of the vote, even as Republican Senate candidates elsewhere were having a strong year.

Amid heavy lobbying by both sides, Mrs. Lincoln has been skeptical recently of Democratic leaders’ efforts to address global warming. Her skepticism has become more relevant as she is in line to take over as chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee in the reshuffling sparked by the recent death of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat.

Strategists say the battle for her vote was closely watched by both sides, and the strategy that succeeded in helping her swing toward opposition could become the blueprint for targeting other senators.

She joins Mr. Pryor and fellow Sens. Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Mary L. Landrieu of Louisiana as the Democrats opponents see as near-sure bets to vote against a global warming bill — and as lawmakers not afraid to choose constituents over party leadership.

“We’ve already seen that on climate change, and we’re going to see it on other stuff. I think she’s going to be a really, really good chairman of agriculture,” said Republican strategist and lobbyist Michael McKenna.

He said Mrs. Lincoln will be a change from the previous Agriculture Committee chairman, Sen. Tom Harkin, Iowa Democrat, who Mr. McKenna said often found himself giving in to the wishes of his party leadership.

“She’s not going to be that. She’s going to cut a path she thinks is worthwhile and relevant and useful to her constituents in Arkansas, and farmers, and consumers,” he said.

Mrs. Lincoln’s journey on the global warming bill has been from uncertain to opposed, but on another big issue, — the Employee Free Choice Act, which would make it easier for unions to organize work sites — she has gone from full-blown sponsor to outright opponent.

The bill would make it easier to form a union by gathering public signatures and would tie businesses and unions to binding-arbitration procedures. Labor unions have made it their biggest priority on Capitol Hill.

But despite voting for and sponsoring the bill in previous sessions of Congress, this year Mrs. Lincoln has said she wouldn’t vote for that bill, arguing it wasn’t a good balance between businesses and labor unions.

Still, Republicans say there are other tests coming up for Mrs. Lincoln as well, including the vote on whether to let the 2001 George W. Bush tax cuts expire. Mrs. Lincoln voted for the original tax-cut package but will be under pressure from Democrats to let some of the cuts expire.

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