Senators praise Bush’s pick to succeed Mike Johanns

Senators gave a friendly reception to President Bush’s announcement that Chuck Connor will take over as acting Agriculture secretary after Mike Johanns on Thursday announced his resignation, effective immediately.

Johanns did not use the announcement to make a Nebraska Senate run official, but Bush hinted Johanns intends to do so. Johanns “would make an outstanding member of the United States Senate. There is no doubt in my mind,” Bush said.

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Connor is seen as a potential permanent replacement for Johanns given his close ties to the White House and his active role in the current farm bill debate. However, some have pointed to his advocacy for positions opposed by cotton, rice, peanut and sugar producers as potential problems in a confirmation battle.

On Thursday, however, several senators indicated they could support Connor, a former staffer for Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) who has long worked to reform farm policy.

“I have had a long, positive working relationship with Chuck Connor,” Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) said in an e-mail. He described Connor as knowledgeable and someone who will be respected in negotiations on the farm bill Congress hopes to approve this year.
“That’s not to say I have always agreed with him. But I do respect him,” said Conrad.

 Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), whose state includes cotton and rice producers who could be disproportionately affected by payment limits proposed by the administration, offered support for Connor in an interview with The Hill. Cochran also, however, offered support for another United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) official, Undersecretary Mark Keenum, who used to be Cochran’s chief of staff and potentially could be an in-house rival to Connor for the secretary position.

“I wouldn’t have any problem with [Connor] or Mark Keenum,” Cochran said. Noting that the Senate is to advise the president on Cabinet members, he said, “My advice is, Mark Keenum would be my personal choice.”

Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) said Connor was a good choice as acting secretary. “I have known him for over 20 years and believe his involvement in this farm bill process will make for a smooth transition.”

Although Connor is well-respected on the Hill, some lobbyists see his advocacy for limiting subsidy payments as a potential problem. The administration proposed that those with incomes above $200,000 should not be able to receive farm subsidies, a policy that would affect cotton and rice farmers in the South more than other producers. The current limit is $2.5 million.

In February, Connor defended the proposal in an interview with The Associated Press. “I don’t know if there is anywhere in the country you can go where $200,000 adjusted gross net income is not a lot of income,” he said.

Sen. Saxby Chambliss (Ga.), the top Republican on the Senate Agriculture Committee, didn’t mention Connor in a statement complimenting Johanns for his dedication and hard work for U.S. farmers. “As the secretary departs, we will continue to work with the department on issues of importance to America’s farmers and ranchers,” he said.

Asked specifically about Connor, Chambliss’s spokeswoman in an e-mail said Chambliss “intends to continue the tradition of working closely with the USDA on issues that impact rural America.”

Connor has been a force on agriculture policy for years. An Indiana native, Connor was Lugar’s staff director on the Senate Agriculture Committee and previously worked as an agriculture legislative assistant to Lugar. From 1997 to 2001, Connor was president of the Corn Refiners Association, which generally is on the opposite side of U.S. sugar producers on trade and farm policy issues. Conrad’s state is home to a huge sugar beet industry.

Connor was named special assistant to the president for agricultural trade and Food Assistance in 2001, and focused on the 2002 farm bill. Lobbyists saw him as a lead player for the administration on that farm bill who provided critical support to then-Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman, who had a rocky relationship with the members of Congress writing the bill.

Johanns, who is expected to run for the seat of retiring Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), certainly seemed to be pointing to a Senate race in his comments. He used the announcement to highlight his ties not to Washington, but to Nebraska, a place where he said “the richness of the land is only equaled by the character of its people.”

“In a sense, I brought Nebraskans with me to every Cabinet meeting, every hearing on Capitol Hill, every negotiating session in far-away countries,” said Johanns, a former Nebraska governor and mayor of Lincoln.

Johanns would face competition in a GOP primary from state Attorney General Jon Bruning and former Rep. Hal Daub, who announced his candidacy earlier this week. If he wins the primary, Johanns could face off in a race guaranteed to get national attention with former Sen. Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.), who is considering a run.

Previewing potential campaign arguments, Johanns came under criticism from some farm-state lawmakers on Wednesday when news of his imminent resignation floated. Conrad said should stay with USDA until work on the farm bill is completed.

Some lobbyists, however, said privately that Johanns’s absence would make little difference in the outcome of the farm bill.