Smooth sailing for Sonny Perdue at Senate confirmation hearing

WASHINGTON -- Things could not have gone better for former Gov. Sonny Perdue at his Senate confirmation hearing Thursday even if he had tried.

The Trump administration's nominee to lead the Department of Agriculture won praise from senators of both parties during his two-and-a-half hour turn before the Agriculture Committee, including an endorsement from the panel's influential top Democrat, Debbie Stabenow of Michigan.

His confirmation appeared all but assured -- the real question was when such a vote would occur.

The tone Thursday was strikingly civil and bipartisan for President Donald Trump's final Cabinet nominee, even as other picks saw themselves subject to fiercely partisan debates.

Senators' questions did not focus not on whether Perdue was qualified to lead the 106,000-person Agriculture Department. Nor did anyone bring up his biggest controversies from his eight years as governor, including his multiple brush-ups with the state's ethics agency or his finances.

Instead, lawmakers sought reassurance from Perdue that he would look out for farming and agricultural interests -- as well as those of the two dozen members of the Senate Agriculture Committee -- in the Trump White House.

Trump's proposed 21 percent budget cut to the Department of Agriculture and his stances on immigration and trade have created some anxiety in the ag community, which relies on exports and foreign labor to help make ends meet.

“Last week’s budget proposal made it clear that rural America is not a top priority for this administration," Stabenow said.

Perdue in turn promised to stand up for the industry and rural America at the White House.

“If I’m confirmed, I’m going to get under the boards and get some room and work for agriculture producers and consumers and let this administration and any of the people who are making those decisions in that budget area know what’s important to America," Perdue said.

Senators also sought commitments from Perdue that he would look out for their specific home state crops, livestock and forests in next year's Farm Bill fight. As ag chief he would be a major player in those discussions, which will set agriculture, nutrition and conservation policies, including crop subsidies, for the next five years.

Perdue, 70, laid out his background as the son of dairy farmers in Middle Georgia but focused little on the individual scuffles of his years in the state Senate and governor's mansion. He instead discussed his broad vision for running the Agriculture Department, which includes growing opportunities for American farmers at home and abroad, protecting forests and the safety of the country's food supply and running the sprawling federal agency more effectively.

"We will face the greatest challenges facing the agricultural industry and rural America while collaborating to make opportunities for the future," Perdue told senators.

Ahead of his testimony, Perdue was endorsed by former Georgia U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss, who himself once ran the Senate Agriculture panel, as well as U.S. Rep. David Scott, D-Atlanta.

Scott highlighted Perdue's bipartisan credentials, telling stories of their time in the Georgia Senate, and used an extended biblical reference to describe the role of Perdue and his predecessors, Democrats Zell Miller and Roy Barnes, in Georgia's flag fight.

“You talk about brilliance, you take about achievement in a tough area,” Scott said. “Sonny Perdue negotiated a compromise and put together the referendum and gave the people a choice.”

Beyond Scott's remarks and a few passing references to Perdue's history as a walk-on football player at the University of Georgia, senators did not spend any time probing Perdue's Georgia record or his finances, despite some recent attention in the national media.

Stabenow told reporters following the hearing that she had been planning to ask Perdue about such topics in a second round of questions but that a Senate vote had cut the hearing short.

"Given the situation with the votes on the floor, I will raise those for the record and have raised those with him privately,” Stabenow said. She added, “After looking at everything, my feeling is that he answered the questions. He’s resolved issues on conflict of interest and has addressed other issues.”

Agriculture chairman Pat Roberts was complimentary about Perdue's performance after the hearing and said he would look to advance his nomination through the committee "as soon as possible."

“Welcome to a nominee who not only knows agriculture, but cares about it," the Kansas Republican told reporters. "We have told the leadership that we’d like to move him as soon as possible and the leadership has agreed.”

With the Senate on recess the weeks of April 10 and 17th, it's possible the chamber may not have time to confirm him before they leave.

Perdue arrived in the Russell Senate office building Thursday morning with a considerable Georgia posse. About 30 former staffers from his time in the governor's office were in attendance, he said, as well as his wife, four kids and all 14 of his grandchildren. U.S. Rep. Sanford Bishop, D-Albany and Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black were in the crowd, as was Zippy Duvall, the American Farm Bureau president and former head of the Georgia Farm Bureau.

U.S. Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., who serves on the Senate Agriculture panel, wished his first cousin well at the beginning of the hearing but signaled he did not think it was appropriate to ask him questions.

“The only thing I can say is good luck, cuz," he said.

Read more:  What to watch for during Sonny Perdue’s Senate confirmation hearing

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About the Author

Tamar Hallerman
Tamar Hallerman
Tamar Hallerman is a senior reporter for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's enterprise team, where she covers women in society, LGBTQ issues, the urban-rural...