WASHINGTON (DTN) -- Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., incoming chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, said Tuesday she hopes that a Senate organizing resolution will be completed within the next days so that she can take over the committee, arrange for a confirmation hearing for Tom Vilsack, President Joe Biden's nominee as Agriculture secretary, and move on to climate legislation and reauthorization of child nutrition programs.
In a virtual fireside chat to the International Dairy Foods Association Dairy Forum, Stabenow, who chaired the committee from 2011 to 2015 when the 2014 farm bill was written, said, "I am looking forward to return as chair of the committee" and that she is committed to maintaining a bipartisan approach on the committee.
Stabenow noted that she had gotten along well with former Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., who retired, and expects to have the same relationship with Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., who is expected to become the Republican ranking member on the committee.
"We really run it as co-chairs," she said.
Boozman was supposed to participate in his own fireside chat, but technical problems interfered.
Stabenow spoke to the Dairy Forum less than 24 hours after Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., announced that he was satisfied that two Democratic senators -- Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona -- would not support ending the filibuster and was dropping his resistance to organizing the Senate in Democratic hands. The Senate is composed of 50 Democrats and 50 Republicans, but Vice President Kamala Harris' 51st vote gives the Democrats control of the chamber.
While committees still controlled by Republicans have held confirmation hearings on some Biden nominees and the Senate has confirmed several, the Senate Agriculture Committee has not scheduled a confirmation hearing for Vilsack because the committee was leaderless after Roberts' retirement.
Stabenow called Vilsack, who was the Agriculture secretary in the Obama administration, "our good friend. Certainly, he is no stranger; he is experienced, has a strong vision for getting ag back on track," Stabenow said.
She added that she is looking forward to the confirmation hearing for Jewel Bronaugh, Biden's nominee for USDA deputy secretary. Bronaugh is currently the Virginia agriculture commissioner and "comes with a very strong background in farm services, research and extension," Stabenow said. Vilsack and Bronaugh "will lead a great team," she added.
Stabenow also noted that she expects a total of 28 nominees to come before the committee for confirmation hearings, including candidates for other USDA positions, the Commodity Credit Corporation, the Farm Credit Administration and the Federal Agricultural Mortgage Corporation, known as Farmer Mac.
Stabenow told the dairy processors she was pleased to have provided $1 billion for the dairy industry in the latest COVID-19 relief package, including direct payments to producers, a dairy donation program and worker protections for farmers and processors as well as increasing nutrition program benefits, which she noted allow low-income people to buy more milk.
Stabenow said she hopes the next COVID-19 bill can address breakdowns that occurred in supply chains. The Farmers to Families Food Box program, she said, was "successful in some areas, not in others."
Noting that she and Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, have written legislation to address those problems, Stabenow said that she and Murkowski "want to build on those things that worked, but there were a number of gaps including providing support to state departments of agriculture to do direct purchasing." Food boxes were put out in the spring, she noted, while harvest is in the fall.
Stabenow said she views carbon as "a new commodity" that farmers have, and she wants to tackle the issues of climate credits. Stabenow noted that she and Sen. Mike Braun, R-Ind., have a bill to help farmers scale up sustainable practices and that the dairy industry is a strong supporter of it.
"We have a real opportunity in agriculture and forestry. I start with the idea that whatever we do will be voluntary, producer-led and bipartisan," she said.
Stabenow also said she wants to "make sure" immigration reform moves forward and that she is pleased that Biden wants to lead the effort so that the dairy industry will have a legal workforce.
Without going into details, Stabenow said she wants to pass a bill to reauthorize the child nutrition programs. Those programs -- including the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) and school meals -- are operating through appropriations bills, but they have not been reauthorized since the 2010 Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act that then-first lady Michelle Obama championed. The Senate Agriculture Committee passed a reauthorization bill, but Republicans and Democrats were split on the reauthorization, particularly in the House where the programs are under the jurisdiction of the House Education and Labor Committee.
Asked how she would address the urban-rural divide, Stabenow said, "That is a really important question that I work on all the time." She noted that 87 senators voted for the last farm bill and that Americans have the safest, most reliable food supply because of the work of farmers and the rest of the industry in "the most risky business."
"It is important to continue a strategy of supporting all kinds of agriculture," Stabenow said, noting that she supports small farms and urban operations as well as more conventional agriculture.
Jerry Hagstrom can be reached at email@example.com
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