The Senate Agriculture Committee voted 14 to 7 on Monday to approve the nomination of Stephen Vaden, President Donald Trump’s nominee for Agriculture Department general counsel.
Senate Agriculture ranking member Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., and Democratic Sens. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Joe Donnelly of Indiana joined all Republican committee members to vote in favor of the nomination.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., made a rare appearance at a Senate Ag meeting to vote for Vaden. The business meeting was held in the President’s Room off the Senate floor.
But Democratic Sens. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Patrick Leahy of Vermont, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Michael Bennet of Colorado, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Bob Casey of Pennsylvania voted against forwarding the nomination to the Senate.
Stabenow said she was voting to move the nomination forward because USDA needs a full staff as development of the next farm bill begins, although “this has not been an easy decision.”
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“With the 2018 farm bill right around the corner, it is critical that the Agriculture Committee continues to work in a bipartisan manner to fill leadership positions at USDA,” Stabenow said.
“However, I remain concerned about Mr. Vaden’s past legal work and certain personnel practices at USDA. I will be seeking more information about those issues before I can consider supporting Mr. Vaden on the floor.“
Vaden has been working in the general counsel’s office since shortly after Trump took office.
While in private practice, Vaden represented conservative groups on voting rights issues. The union representing USDA’s legal professionals has publicly opposed his nomination.
“Stephen Vaden has been the de facto head of the Office of General Counsel since January when he arrived as a beachhead official,” the union said in a November 9 news release. “One of his first official acts was to terminate the labor contract between the office and its staff of 250 lawyers and legal professionals nationwide, who are represented by American Federation of Government Employees Local 1106.”
“We respectfully seek a collaborative work environment and true partnership with the agency that facilitates stellar service to our client agencies and, most importantly, to the American public,” Local 1106 President Matt Tilden said.
Stabenow said she has received information about wider reassignment of career employees who have been considered too close to the Obama administration.
She said Vaden appears to be supervising these reassignments, but that she needs to find out if this direction is coming “from the top,” meaning either Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue or the White House. Stabenow said she would write Perdue a letter asking for answers to her questions about the personnel practices.
Stabenow said she has been told that some career officials have been reassigned outside Washington and outside their areas of expertise.
“We can’t afford a brain drain” or the loss of expertise as the farm bill moves forward,” Stabenow said.
Asked whether she expects any senator to put a hold on Vaden’s nomination, Stabenow replied that she does not expect the nomination to go through the Senate on a unanimous consent basis.
The nomination will have to move on regular order including a cloture motion, she said.
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