The Senate confirmed Bill Northey as USDA’s undersecretary for farm programs after Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, dropped a hold he had kept on the nomination for four months in a dispute over biofuel policy.
The voice vote on Northey, a farmer who has been Iowa’s agriculture secretary since 2007, came as President Trump was scheduled to start an 11 a.m. White House meeting with Cruz and three other Republican senators, Charles Grassley and Joni Ernst of Iowa and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania. At 11:02 a.m., with Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., presiding in the Senate, Sen. Todd Young, R-Ind., made a motion for a vote on the Northey nomination.
Cruz said he released his hold, as promised, as soon as the senators from Iowa sat down with him and the president "to discuss a 'win-win' solution to the broken RINs system."
The senator had been demanding that the ethanol industry agree to a cap on prices for biofuel credits, or Renewable Identification Numbers, which he blamed for forcing a Philadelphia refinery to file for bankruptcy protection.
“While this process has taken longer than expected, I remain as excited as ever to work with Secretary Perdue and the staff at USDA to support our nation’s farmers and ranchers,” Northey said in a statement.
Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., welcomed Northey’s confirmation, which comes as his panel and the House Agriculture Committee are preparing to write a new farm bill.
“I have no doubt he will be a champion for farmers and ranchers at USDA. Our committee worked in a bipartisan fashion to get Mr. Northey down the road to work at USDA,” Roberts said.
Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue applauded Northey’s confirmation, saying his he’s joining USDA at a “crucial time.”
“His knowledge and expertise will be immediately put to use as the new farm bill is formulated to address the needs of American farmers," Perdue said in a statement.
“In addition, his leadership will be key in the newly-constituted mission area, where the Farm Service Agency, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, and the Risk Management Agency will be providing an even better customer experience. I am excited to finally have Bill on board.”
The American Farm Bureau Federation also welcomed the Senate action.
“Northey knows farmers’ and ranchers’ heartfelt commitment to protecting our natural resources,” AFBF President Zippy Duvall said in a statement. “He’s walked the same soil we have as a fourth-generation farmer from Iowa, and has a proven track record as a strong advocate for agriculture in his role as agriculture secretary in his home state.”
Still, there will be some question about Northey's title at USDA for a while. The Senate technically confirmed him as undersecretary for farm and foreign agricultural services, the title for which he was nominated, which reflects USDA's previous organization, which grouped FSA and RMA with the Foreign Agricultural Service.
Further action by Congress will be needed to allow Northey to have the title Perdue envisions: "undersecretary for farm production and conservation programs," said a spokeswoman for the Senate Agriculture Committee.
A USDA spokesman said the only question is about Northey's title, not his authority. "He will oversee FSA, NRCS and RMA. We are working with Congress to cement the official name change and hope an appropriations bill or the farm bill will get that done."
After the White House meeting, Ernst said there was no deal reached on the RIN issue and that Cruz received "nothing" in return for ending his hold on Northey.
But Trump requested a meeting Thursday with leaders of the ethanol industry and refiners. And Cruz said that after that meeting "I believe are likely to arrive upon a 'win-win' solution that (1) stops the RINS system from imposing billions in unnecessary costs for refiners and threatening the jobs of tens of thousands of blue-collar union workers, and (2) expands the potential for market ethanol, allowing corn farmers to sell substantially more corn each year."
Toomey described Tuesday's meeting as a "good, constructive conversation. I think It was clear that the status quo is unacceptable. We're exploring solutions so that the merchant refiners can survive, but that will also be good for corn growers and the ethanol industry."
(Updates with comment from Sen. Cruz. Spencer Chase and Dan Enoch contributed to this report.)