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Old Alliance Faces New Test

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has been courting and protecting House Agriculture Chairman Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) for the better part of a decade, but Peterson lately hasn’t been returning the favors.

The Minnesota Democrat has emerged in recent weeks as the most outspoken critic of sweeping climate change legislation that Pelosi views as her legacy project. And his continued opposition would make it difficult, if not outright impossible, for leaders to pass the package before lawmakers leave town for the July Fourth recess.

Peterson has demanded that the Environmental Protection Agency be stripped of its ability to regulate ethanol production and wants to prevent the EPA from having a role regulating carbon offsets under the cap-and-trade proposal.

House Democratic staff worked through the weekend to strike a deal but a breakthrough remained elusive at press time.

Looming large over the measure’s fate is Pelosi’s long history with Peterson, a rare moderate ally. Sources close to both said that while Peterson has been brusque publicly, he is negotiating in good faith behind closed doors — and that Pelosi knows his gripes about the bill speak to real concerns among a critical bloc of moderate and rural Democrats that need to be addressed for the bill to pass.

“You can see him as a big pain in the ass and dragging it out this long, but in the end he’s the guy we need to pass this bill, and she knows that,” said a House Democratic aide. “She cannot move her flagship issue without his input.”

Aides noted that Pelosi courted Peterson and other rural Democrats for years, even flying with Peterson, a pilot, in his small plane and starting a rural working group when Democrats were in the minority. And Pelosi provided key support for Peterson to get the Agriculture ranking membership in 2005, even though he had voted with Republicans on major bills and for years was derelict in his political support for the party.

“Their relationship is extremely close and it has been for a very long time,” said a House leadership aide. And although Peterson has disparaged the cap-and-trade bill repeatedly and threatened to kill it if his demands aren’t met, Energy and Commerce Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and senior aides close to the process give him credit for working toward a deal.

Pelosi started cracking her whip shortly after the Energy and Commerce Committee passed the climate change bill in May, with Peterson warning he had the votes to derail it and Ways and Means Chairman Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) considering wholesale changes. Pelosi set a June 19 goal for committees to hold markups — none did — and committees will instead get a chance for input via a manager’s amendment this week if Pelosi succeeds in getting the bill to the floor.

Waxman in particular has been angling for quick action since debate over a health care overhaul will likely dominate July. But insiders said Pelosi is taking a more cautious approach to ensure leaders have the votes lined up before the measure hits the floor.

Nevertheless, this week could be the test of whether Pelosi’s long courtship of Peterson will pay off for her signature issue. “This is where he could really deliver on that relationship,” the aide said.

Or not.

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