WASHINGTON, Oct. 19, 2017 - The Senate Agriculture Committee advanced the nominations of Bill Northey and Greg Ibach to serve as undersecretaries at USDA, but a potential legal snafu could hinder Northey’s initial work at the department.

Northey, the Iowa agriculture secretary, was nominated by President Trump to be undersecretary for farm production and conservation, a reorganized mission that would put him in charge of the Natural Resources Conservation Service as well as the Farm Service Agency and Risk Management Agency.

However, committee Democrats are questioning whether Northey can legally take on that role since he is technically being confirmed as undersecretary of the USDA mission area as it is currently constituted, which includes FSA, RMA and the Foreign Agricultural Service.

A letter that Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts and ranking Democrat Debbie Stabenow sent to USDA on Thursday in concert with the committee votes on the Northey and Ibach nominations asked Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue not to alter Northey’s mission area to include NRCS until Congress clarifies the USDA titles and duties legislatively.

Further confusing the issue: Ted McKinney, the former Indiana agriculture director, recently took office as USDA’s first undersecretary for trade and foreign agricultural affairs, which puts him in charge of the Foreign Agricultural Service.

The letter says that a nominee cannot serve in a position that is different form the one for which he or she was confirmed. 

“We commit to working with the department to advance legislation which provides clarity about the titles of the Under Secretaries and they positions at USDA. … Until such clarity is available, we ask that the nominee (Northey), if confirmed, serve the mission area in the position to which the individual was nominated,” the committee letter says.

The committee approved both nominations by voice vote Tuesday afternoon. Final action on the Senate floor isn’t expected until next week due to Senate rules that prevent the committee and full Senate from acting the same day, a source said.

A USDA spokesperson said Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue is not worried about "nomenclature and titles." “Secretary Perdue is about getting the work done and he is excited to get Bill Northey on board as soon as possible to support farmers and ranchers, and help with hurricane response,” the spokesperson said.

Ibach, who is Nebraska’s agriculture director, was nominated to be undersecretary for marketing and regulatory programs, which include the Agricultural Marketing Service, Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service and Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration.

Stabenow has made clear that she has no objection to Northey himself. She and Roberts released a statement that said in part, Greg Ibach and Bill Northey are qualified and respected public servants who know agriculture firsthand, and they will serve rural America well at USDA.”

Roberts told reporters after the hearing that he was preparing to move forward on President Trump’s most controversial USDA nominee, Sam Clovis, a campaign adviser picked to become undersecretary for research, economics and education. Roberts said he hoped to have a hearing next week for Clovis, whom Democrats have charged is legally unqualified for the job because he isn’t a scientist.

Clovis also has come under fire because of statements he made about race and homosexuality while hosting a conservative talk radio show in Iowa.

Roberts said he wasn’t sure whether yet whether Clovis had sufficient support to be approved by the full Senate.

The committee also has yet to act on Trump’s nominee for general counsel at USDA, Stephen Vaden.

(This story was updated at 5 p.m. with USDA comment.)