Angered by White House decisions on everything from greenhouse gases to car dealerships, congressional Democrats from rural districts are threatening to revolt against parts of President Barack Obama’s ambitious first-year agenda.
“They don’t get rural America,” said Rep. Dennis Cardoza, a Democrat who represents California’s agriculture-rich Central Valley. “They form their views of the world in large cities.”
Cardoza’s critique was aimed at Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency, but it echoes complaints rural-district Democrats have about a number of Obama administration decisions.
“I wouldn’t say it’s a complete strikeout, but they’ve just got a few more bases to it when it comes to the rural community,” said Louisiana Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu.
A rural revolt could hamper the administration’s ability to pass climate change and health care legislation before the August recess.
Democrats from farm states are some of the same moderate members Obama must win to get almost any piece of his agenda through the Senate: Landrieu and Sens. Max Baucus of Montana, Ben Nelson of Nebraska, and Blanche Lincoln and Mark Pryor of Arkansas. Without their votes, Democrats can’t move legislation over Republican filibusters — such as the one sure to come if the health care plan that moves through the Senate includes a public option supported by the administration.
In the House, rural Democrats threaten to marshal nearly 50 votes against the climate and energy bill backed by the administration.
“For Obama, it’s a very tough high-wire act,” said Frank O’Donnell, executive director of the environmental group Clean Air Watch. “The farm states are among those that the Democrats desperately want to keep in the fold at the same time the farm states historically aren’t very good on environmental issues.”
Obama made inroads to rural areas during his presidential campaign, a result of pouring significant resources into rural counties in key battleground states. According to exit polls, Obama won 43 percent of the rural vote — a 4 percent increase from Democrat John Kerry in 2004.
But some Democrats complain that Obama hasn’t paid much attention to the rural states since he’s been in office.
“We’d love to see him out in rural America more,” Lincoln said.
The conflict with rural Democrats burst into the open at the Capitol last week, when rural and moderate Democrats revolted against the decision to close roughly 3,400 General Motors and Chrysler car dealerships. The White House Auto Task Force endorsed some of the cuts in its plans to revamp the companies.
In rural America, especially, the looming closures pose a dire threat. Car dealers are not only an economic linchpin of many county-seat towns but also offer support for institutions and a way of life that can’t be easily replaced.
“In rural jurisdictions, your dealerships are pretty big employers. If you knock out four dealerships, the ripple effects of that are substantial,” said Rep. Frank Kratovil (D-Md.), who represents a largely rural Eastern Shore district and is co-sponsoring a bill that could force the auto companies to honor their contracts with the rejected dealerships.
Since then, much of rural Democrats’ unhappiness with the new administration has focused on the EPA. While Bush administration political appointees in the agency were skeptical of stricter environmental laws, Obama’s EPA has moved forward quickly on a host of new regulations, including limits on greenhouse gas emissions that farm lobbyists say will raise costs on farmers.
While these issues play out most dramatically in farm states, they could have an impact that spreads much further. Forcing rural Democrats to vote for climate change legislation could create problems for the Democrats nationally in 2010 and 2012.
“If Collin Peterson and these rural and conservative Democrats in the House are unable to work out some arrangement with [Henry] Waxman and [Ed] Markey, it could resonate beyond the Beltway,” said Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues and a veteran Kentucky political reporter.
For more go to Poltico.com.