The Senate Agriculture Committee approved the nomination of Stephen Vaden to become USDA’s general counsel, but he could face stiffer Democratic opposition on the Senate floor after the panel's top Democrat raised new concerns about the reassignment of career personnel in the department.
Three Democrats, including ranking member Debbie Stabenow, voted with Republicans to approve Vaden's nomination 14-7. But Stabenow told reporters that she needs answers about whether the personnel moves involved retaliation. Stabenow, who is sending a letter to the department about the reassignments, said before the vote that she would support Vaden's nomination in committee because the panel will be working on the farm bill soon.
"With the 2018 farm bill just around the corner, it's really critical that the Agriculture Committee continues to work in a bipartisan way to fill leadership positions at the USDA," Stabenow said. "I do want to say that I'm concerned about Mr. Vaden's past legal work, and there are certain personnel practices that we've had folks raise questions about this weekend that I want to look more into as this moves to the floor."
Committee Democrats Joe Donnelly of Indiana and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota also supported Vaden's nomination.
Vaden is currently serving as the principal deputy general counsel. Stabenow said the general's counsel's office appeared to be supervising the reassignments. She wants to know whether the changes were directed by Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue or the White House.
“To best serve rural America, USDA needs all hands on deck, and our committee is doing its part to make that happen," said Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan. He didn't address the issue raised by Stabenow before leaving the brief committee meeting, which took place off the Senate floor.
Democrats can't block Vaden's confirmation on the floor so long as Republicans, who control 52 seats, don't lose more than three GOP senators. Vice President MIke Pence would break a tie.
During Vaden’s Nov. 9 confirmation hearing, Democrats raised concerns about Vaden’s work at the Jones Day law firm, where he helped file briefs in defense of voter registration laws in North Carolina and Ohio. In the case of North Carolina, the courts struck down the laws, which included the requirement of a photo ID, a provision that they said discriminated against African Americans.
Vaden defended his qualifications for the USDA position, saying he has been essentially doing the general counsel’s job for the past 11 months.
Perdue said in an Open Mic interview with Agri-Pulse that he is eager to see the Senate confirm Vaden to the post so that he can ensure the legality of USDA’s reorganization and other issues.
“We need him to be passed so we can move along with all of the reorganization effort. It’s very important, obviously, to do things legally in the government. While he’s acting now I need him here to be affirmed.”
Perdue said vacancies in a number of USDA’s top positions have limited his ability to carry out administration priorities.
The Senate has confirmed just three USDA nominees so far: Deputy Secretary Steve Censky; Ted McKinney, the undersecretary for trade and foreign agricultural services; and Greg Ibach, the undersecretary for marketing and regulatory programs.
"We’ve got some great career employees in USDA. They’re doing a wonderful job. I don’t have this deep, ideological, partisan state here at USDA like some agencies have. But these people need direction," said Perdue. "They need to press the culture on down of our data driven, facts-based customer-focused mission here at USDA."
Trump’s nominee to become undersecretary for research, economics and education, Sam Clovis, faced heavy opposition in the Senate and withdrew his name before the committee acted on him.
Trump has yet to pick a replacement for Clovis or to nominate undersecretaries for food safety; natural resources, and food, nutrition and consumer services.
Trump’s nominee to become undersecretary for farm and conservation programs, Bill Northey, has been blocked by Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, as leverage to get concessions from the administration on biofuel policy.