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VOL. 41 | NO. 16 | Friday, April 21, 2017

Senate set to confirm Sonny Perdue as agriculture secretary

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WASHINGTON (AP) — After months of delay, the Senate is expected to confirm former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue as agriculture secretary with bipartisan support.

Perdue, who would be the first Southerner in the post in more than two decades, is the son of a farmer and has owned several agricultural companies. The Senate plans to vote on his nomination Monday.

At his confirmation hearing in March, Perdue assured nervous farm-state senators that he will advocate for rural America, even as President Donald Trump's administration has proposed deep cuts to some farm programs. He also promised to reach out to Democrats, and several Democratic senators have said they will vote for him.

Still, Perdue, 70, is getting a late start on the job. Trump nominated him just two days before his inauguration, and then the nomination was delayed for weeks as the administration prepared his ethics paperwork. Perdue eventually said he would step down from several companies bearing his name to avoid conflicts of interest.

As agriculture secretary, he'll be in charge of around 100,000 employees and the nation's food and farm programs, including agricultural subsidies and conservation efforts, rural development programs, food safety and nutrition programs such as food stamps and federally-subsidized school meals.

Perdue will take office as farm prices have been down for several years in a row, and some in the industry are looking for policy fixes to help revive the market.

His main task over the coming year will be working with Congress and coordinating his department's input on the next five-year farm bill. Current farm policy expires next year, and lawmakers on the House and Senate agriculture committees will have to find a way to push it through Congress amid heightened partisan tensions and concerns over spending.

At his hearing, he pledged to help senators sustain popular crop insurance programs and fix problems with government dairy programs.

Perdue may also find himself in the uncomfortable position of defending agriculture in an administration that has so far given the issue limited attention, despite Trump's strong support in rural areas. Trump has proposed a 21 percent cut in USDA programs and has harshly criticized some international trade deals, saying they have killed American jobs. But farmers who produce more than they can sell in the United States have heavily profited from some of those deals, and are hoping his anti-trade policies will include some exceptions for agriculture.

At the hearing, Perdue said he would be a "tenacious advocate and fighter" for rural America when dealing with the White House and other agencies and noted a growing middle class around the world that is hungry for U.S. products.

"Food is a noble thing to trade," Perdue said.

Perdue will also be part of the administration's response to a dispute with Canada's dairy industry, which has a new lower-priced classification of milk product that Trump says is harming U.S. producers in dairy states like Wisconsin and New York. Canada changed its policy on pricing domestic milk to cover more dairy ingredients, leading to lower prices for Canadian products that compete with U.S. milk.

Wisconsin Sen. Tammy Baldwin, a Democrat, said Monday that she will vote for Perdue and encouraged him to come to Wisconsin to talk to affected farmers.

Trump has also reached out to farmers on the issue of regulation, saying the government has too many rules that negatively affect farm country. That issue is expected to come up on Perdue's first day in office Tuesday, when the president holds hold a round table discussion with farmers and sign an executive order "to provide relief for rural America," according to the White House.

The White House hasn't said when Perdue will be sworn in, but he is scheduled to speak to USDA staff Tuesday morning.

After Perdue, remaining nominees for Trump's Cabinet to be confirmed are Robert Lighthizer for U.S. trade representative and Alexander Acosta for labor secretary.

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