U.S. Rep. Cindy Axne of Iowa was slow to get behind a $1 trillion infrastructure bill after the Senate passed it last month. It wasn't the price tag that tripped up the Democrat from a swing House district. It was that none of the money was targeted for a home state industry — ethanol and biodiesel.
Axne set out to fix that. In the weeks since, she won assurances from congressional leaders that a separate multitrillion-dollar budget blueprint would include money for the renewable fuels. She's now on board.
Her biofuels bargain underscores the political strategy embedded in the negotiations over massive new federal spending.
While Democrats have set out to pass ambitious bills with historic expansions of the social safety net and long-sought new programs, that's not how many politically vulnerable Democrats such as Axne are selling them at home. For them, Washington's spending boom has become a chance to deliver the goods — and win headlines and perhaps bipartisan support in their districts.
“If she wants to get elected next time, this is her political bread and butter,” Ray Gaesser, a Republican farmer in Axne’s district and past candidate for Iowa secretary of agriculture, said about her work to secure money for biofuels. “For my part, I appreciate her approach."
Rep. Angie Craig of Minnesota has taken a similar tack.
Craig, whose district includes vast tracts of farmland southeast of the Twin Cities, is promoting her role securing $2.5 billion for farmers and rural small businesses to convert to renewable energy sources and high efficiency equipment as a financial incentive to meet higher environmental standards.
She tweeted on Friday that she was “thrilled that this long-time priority of mine” would be “supporting family farmers and driving investment across rural America.”
In Virginia, Rep. Abigail Spanberger said she is chiefly focused on a measure to exempt her district’s small-scale farmers and foresters from an increase in the estate tax which President Joe Biden has proposed to help pay for the $3.5 trillion bill.
Though Spanberger’s constituents are concentrated in suburban Richmond, the district stretches north and south across the rolling, agricultural Piedmont and its many dairy, vegetable and cattle farms and private forestland.
“I’ve been very focused on making sure we’re protecting small family farmers and foresters, certainly across central Virginia,” Spanberger told The Associated Press.
The lawmakers' efforts are aimed at assisting rural America, where Democrats have steadily lost votes over the past decade. The party is clear-eyed about needing to at least trim its losses in those areas, if they are to hold the congressional seats — and control of the House in 2022.
Democrats currently have a mere eight-seat majority. Republicans are targeting roughly 30 House seats where Democrats won by fewer than 10 percentage points in 2020. Axne, Spanberger and Craig each won by no more than 2 percentage points.
“There’s been a very deliberate effort to think about those provisions in ways that would be beneficial to rural communities,” said Democratic pollster Geoff Garin who is advising the party on the budget package.
Republicans argue that the size of the spending bill will turn off rural voters in key districts, not attract support.
“Rural voters are incredibly concerned about the reckless spending and massive tax hikes that will be included in Democrats’ reconciliation bill," said Mike Berg, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee. "If Democrats think these voters’ concerns will be mollified by a few kickbacks from the federal government, they are sorely mistaken.”
The trillion-dollar infrastructure bill — a plan for roads, bridges, public transit and broadband internet — passed the Democratic-controlled Senate with bipartisan support last month. The House is expected the pass the bill, but its success is tied to progress on the $3.5 trillion budget bill that includes extended child tax credits, expanded Medicare coverage, tuition-free community college, and other social and environmental programs.
Pelosi has set the ambitious goal of passing it by Oct. 1.
Axne announced on Wednesday that the draft of the House budget bill would include $1 billion to expand retail availability of ethanol and biodiesel around the country. Iowa leads the nation producing ethanol, a corn-based fuel additive, and biodiesel, commonly made from soybeans. The amount is double what Axne sought in a bill she had introduced in the House Agriculture Committee this year.
The grants are expected to increase demand for the fuels nationally, spur output in Iowa's 42 ethanol plants and biodiesel refineries, as well as boost the price of corn and soybeans for the farmers who supply them, according to Iowa renewable fuels advocates.
“It impacts the price of soybeans by more than a dollar a bushel. That’s a lot of money," said Monte Shaw, executive director of the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association and a past Republican candidate for Congress. “For ethanol you’re looking at an extra $400 to $500 million for farmers in Iowa, because the price of corn is higher."
On top of that, for the fraction of the cost of the overall bill, the measure would immediately accelerate cutting carbon emissions, a priority of Biden's plan, Axne said.
“There's no way that we’re going to have everybody driving electric vehicles overnight," Axne said in a recent AP interview. “So why the heck are we not, if our goal is to impact climate in a positive way, blending more biofuels now so we can automatically lower greenhouse gases?"
It's also a relatively small price for a House seat critical to Democrats' chances at holding the majority.
Axne holds the distinction of winning by the smallest margin — 1.4 percentage points — of any Democrat in a district carried by Republican Donald Trump last year.
Last year, the former state government administrator and small business owner from suburban Des Moines won Polk County, home to Des Moines and most of its suburbs, but lost the district's other 15 counties.
Like Spanberger’s advocacy for rural Virginians, Axne’s emphasis on an economic priority in the GOP-leaning geographic majority of her district could trim her losses in rural Iowa next year.
There will be other factors, of course. Biden's overall approval rating, now down after criticism for the chaotic recent U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and surging COVID-19 cases, is likely to play a major role. And any number of factors will emerge before an election still almost 17 months away.
Still, Axne's first-step success is a good sign for her, said Shaw, the Republican renewable fuels advocate.
“I hate to ever say one thing makes or breaks somebody. But there are times when you have a chance to make a difference and that’s where the rubber meets the road," he said. “Ultimately, we need folks who can deliver."