WASHINGTON (DTN) -- Sonny Perdue, President Donald Trump's nominee for Agriculture secretary, seemed to reassure every senator on every issue during his confirmation hearing Thursday, and Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., said he would schedule a committee business meeting "as soon as possible" to vote on sending Perdue's nomination to the full Senate.
A spokeswoman for Senate Agriculture Committee ranking member Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., told DTN in an email after the hearing that the senator "plans to support him so long as his responses to her remaining questions for the record do not raise concerns."
The National Farmers Union, the most Democratic-leaning farm group, called for Perdue's "swift confirmation."
During a nearly three-hour hearing, Perdue, a former Georgia Republican governor, repeatedly stated his commitment to promoting agricultural trade, including easing financing for Cuba, and said he had no input into Trump's proposed budget that included a $4.7 billion, or 21%, cut to USDA's discretionary programs.
He also said he understands agriculture's need for foreign workers, including year-round workers in the dairy industry, and pledged to revamp forestry policy and even promised to try to make it easier for low-income children who get free school meals to get access to summer meals.
In his first question, Roberts made clear his fear that Trump's statements on Mexico, China and trade agreements have endangered American exports, telling Perdue, "I have been concerned that there may be too many cooks in the kitchen when it comes to trade, and we want to make sure they are familiar with the main ingredients."
Roberts also asked Perdue to tell him "the best way" that USDA can make sure agriculture is a "top, and I mean top, priority" in trade policy.
Perdue responded that he would establish strong personal relationships with Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and with Robert Lighthizer, the nominee for U.S. trade representative.
Later in the hearing, Perdue said he plans to be "USDA's chief salesman around the world" and promised to both sell products and to be "side by side" with Ross negotiating trade deals.
He also told Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., that Canadian grain standards and dairy policy and Mexican sugar exports should be part of the renegotiation on the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Asked about the Brazilian meat scandal, Perdue said he is pleased that USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service is inspecting 100% of the meat coming in from Brazil, but noted he would oppose a ban on Brazilian meat because other countries might use that to stop imports of U.S. food products.
Asked by Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., for his views on Cuba, Perdue noted he had led a Georgia delegation to Cuba in 2010. Cuban officials had told him they cannot afford to buy U.S. food products because current U.S. law requires them to go through Europe for financing and they have to take "a financial haircut," he said.
Perdue took the moment to note his knowledge of agriculture outside the South, saying that Cuban exports are important not only to Southeastern states that produce rice but to Midwestern states that produce edible beans and that "private financing" needs to be improved.
After Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., a former chairman of the committee, told Perdue the H2A visa program for foreign farm workers does not work for dairy because it covers only seasonal workers, the nominee promised to "advise and counsel" the administration on a program for agricultural workers "that is year-round."
Perdue later told Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., that improving the H2A program to cover year-round workers and trade are the two issues he would work on "post haste" if he is confirmed.
Stabenow presented the greatest challenges to Perdue, telling him in an opening statement that Trump's slowness in nominating him and not having an Agriculture secretary in place yet showed that in the first two months of the administration "rural America has been an afterthought."
"Especially during these times of low prices for agriculture and uncertainty around budget, trade and immigration, we need the next secretary to be an unapologetic advocate for all of rural America. We need someone who will be tenacious, much like a Georgia bulldog," Stabenow said.
Stabenow asked Perdue if he had "input" into the budget that called for a 21% cut to USDA.
Perdue responded, "You are probably aware that without confirmation, I have had no input into the budget. You probably saw it before I did."
As a member of the administration, Perdue added, he would treat the budget as he did a lower-than-expected revenue estimate when he was governor of Georgia. "I didn't like it, but I managed within it."
But he also said that, once confirmed, he wanted to work to "let people making decisions in the budget area" know what is important to rural America.
While he was governor during the Great Recession, Perdue said, he "grew" a $20 billion budget to a $16 billion budget and that he and state employees "did more with less." But he added that in some areas, "it takes some money ... and I will be a tenacious advocate."
Later in the hearing he told Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., that he hoped to "work" with appropriators on the budget issue.
Under questioning from Stabenow, Perdue also acknowledged that equal access to water, telemedicine, research, broadband and feeding children and seniors are all important, even though Trump's proposed budget would cut them.
Asked by Stabenow if he believes organic farming has a place in agriculture, Perdue said, "Consumers across the country have demonstrated that."
Stabenow noted the problems that dairy farmers are finding with low prices and that the American Farm Bureau Federation, the National Farmers Union and the National Milk Producers Federation have come up with a short-term plan to help them. Perdue said "the ideas that have been proposed are intriguing to me" and that he would do all he could within the law to help the dairy farmers.
COSTS OF FIGHTING FOREST FIRES
Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., and others pointed out to Perdue that the U.S. Forest Service is now spending two-thirds of its budget on fighting wildfires, and asked for his commitment to develop forestry policy that helps prevent fires.
Perdue responded that he had had a long conversation with his predecessor, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, about "the upside-down nature of the budget" for the Forest Service.
"Healthy forests are helpful in preventing forest fires," Perdue said, adding that he wants to look at funding forest firefighting the same way that responses to hurricanes are funded. That proposal from the Obama administration and Senate Democrats has encountered opposition in the House, where Republican leaders have demanded changes to forestry management.
"If you can break this Gordian knot, you will be a hero in my state," Bennet said, referring to the ancient Greek legend about a seemingly impossible problem that Alexander the Great is said to have solved by using a sword.
Perdue responded, "I look forward to us breaking that Gordian knot."
In response to questions from Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, Perdue said that he and, even more importantly, Trump, support the Renewable Fuel Standard that determines ethanol volumetric requirements.
On the issue of other agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency, that have an impact on agriculture, Perdue said he would establish a team that monitors proposals at those agencies that may affect agriculture and let them know the costs and benefits of their proposals.
"I am a face-to-face sort of person," Perdue said.
Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., said he considered the Obama administration had not shown flexibility in implementation of some issues related to the Title I programs of the farm bill and appealed to Perdue to reexamine some of those decisions.
When Heitkamp asked him if he would support the sugar program, Perdue seemed to hedge a bit, but when Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., asked about it, Perdue replied that the beet and cane growers "have done a great job in the past. They have come together with a pretty unified front."
Perdue told Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., that he supports the continuation of the voluntary conservation programs that have helped farmers deal with farm practices that have polluted the Chesapeake Bay.
Van Hollen noted that Trump's budget proposal would wipe out the EPA's Chesapeake Bay program, and Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, said that Trump's proposal to end the Great Lakes Initiative is "ludicrous" and unacceptable to him and to Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio.
Perdue told Sen. Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., that Congress made a lot of progress on crop insurance in the 2014 farm bill, but that he hopes the program can be "enhanced" in the future with other commodities included and that it can continue to offer "good value" to both farmers and taxpayers.
Perdue told Donnelly and Brown that he would continue USDA programs that help health care facilities address opioid abuse, and that he would deliver a message of the Office of Management and Budget that repeal of the Affordable Care Act would cause people coping with addiction to lose health care services.
Members of the committee did not ask Perdue any of the questions that have been raised by environmentalists and others about possible management issues and conflicts of interest when he was governor of Georgia.
Perdue also was not asked about the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), but he noted that an alliance between farmers in the North and the South and nutrition advocates is vital to passing the farm bill.
GEORGIA LEGACY, NATIONAL PROMISES
In his opening statement, Perdue covered his upbringing on a farm and his career. If he were confirmed, he said, he would create jobs, prioritize customer service, keep the food supply safe and secure and support private landowners in their efforts to be good stewards and manage the natural resources entrusted to USDA, including the national forests.
Perdue also said his father's words still "ring in my ears: 'Son, if you take care of the land, it will take care of you. Owned or rented, we're all stewards, and our responsibility is to leave it better than we found it.'"
Recorded broadcasts of Thursday's hearing can be seen here:
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