WASHINGTON, March 30, 2017 – The Senate Agriculture Committee easily approved Sonny Perdue’s nomination to become USDA secretary, raising hopes that the former Georgia governor could finally be installed at the Agriculture Department within several weeks.
The committee, which gathered for a brief meeting in an ornate room off the Senate floor Thursday morning, OK’d Perdue’s nomination on a voice vote without any debate.
But Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., insisted on being recorded as voting “no,” to the dismay of Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., who had hoped a unanimous vote would discourage Democrats from using Senate rules to delay a floor vote.
“We really need a really strong voice down there” at USDA, “especially on trade,” Roberts said after the vote.
The top Democrat on the committee, Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, said Perdue shares her “commitment to support American agriculture and strengthen our small towns and rural communities. I look forward to working with Governor Perdue as we write the 2018 farm bill.”
Stabenow has told Agri-Pulse that she is working to get a floor vote as soon as possible.
Roberts said he still holds out hope that Democrats would agree to allow a floor vote next week.
But the vote could slip into May. The Senate will have little time to take up the nomination in April. Next week will be devoted to debating Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch, and then Congress will be on Easter recess for two weeks followed by a debate over a spending measure to avert a government shutdown. The continuing resolution that is funding the government expires April 28.
"Without Democrat cooperation, it will be tough to move quickly," said Don Stewart, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
Roberts tried without success to talk Gillibrand out of voicing a “no” vote.
After the vote, she told Roberts that she was concerned about how Perdue would handle the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps. SNAP “is my thing,” Gillibrand told the chairman. She went on, “Sonny better protect them better than he did in his state.”
She told reporters that Perdue increased paperwork and work requirements for SNAP beneficiaries in Georgia. “Food stamps is a really important issue in my state. We have a lot of families that are struggling to feed their children, and it’s one of my highest priorities being on the Ag committee.”
Perdue is one of three Cabinet nominations still pending along with Robert Lighthizer, Trump’s pick to become U.S. trade representative, and Labor nominee Alexander Acosta.
Lighthizer’s nomination has been delayed because of insistence by Democrats that he needs a waiver to join USTR because of work he did for foreign clients in the 1980s and early 1990s. Republicans contend the waiver is unnecessary. Acosta's nomination was approved Thursday by the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.
Former Democratic agriculture secretaries Tom Vilsack and Dan Glickman announced their support for Perdue soon after he was nominated. He also has been endorsed by more than 600 national, state and local farm organizations, agribusiness companies, banking and crop insurance interests and conservation groups.
Farm groups said Thursday that they were eager to see Perdue confirmed by the full Senate.
During his confirmation hearing March 23, Perdue promised that he would be a “tenacious advocate and fighter” for farmers on trade and other issues and said he would seek to address requests for help from dairy and cotton producers ahead of the next farm bill. He also sought to distance himself Trump’s budget proposals and expressed support for easing financial restrictions on trade with Cuba.
“Sonny Perdue is well qualified to lead USDA, and well thought of by those involved in the daily work of agriculture and food production,” the National Turkey Federation said in a statement.
Tom Nassif, president and CEO of the Western Growers Association, said Perdue used his confirmation hearing to demonstrate “the type of leadership and commitment to agriculture that secured our endorsement more than two months ago” when he was first nominated by President Trump.
“We are confident he will act as a tireless advocate for the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the industry it serves, working to preserve and enhance support for department priorities vital to the sustainability of farmers across the country.”
The Environmental Working Group issued a statement saying it was confident Stabenow “will be watching closely to make sure Mr. Perdue serves the interests of taxpayers, rural residents and family farmers – not his own business interests.”