Former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue, center, prepares to testify Thursday during his confirmation hearing to become secretary of agriculture. He is accompanied by former Georgia U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss, left, and U.S. Rep. David Scott, D-Atlanta. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
Photo: Pablo Martinez Monsivais
Photo: Pablo Martinez Monsivais

Confirmation hearing goes smoothly for Sonny Perdue to become ag chief

The Trump administration’s nominee to lead the Department of Agriculture won praise from senators of both parties during his 2 1/2-hour turn before the Agriculture Committee, including the endorsement of the panel’s influential top Democrat, U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan.

His confirmation appears all but assured — the real question is when that vote could occur.

The tone at Thursday’s hearing was friendly and upbeat, a striking departure from the fiercely partisan battles that marked the confirmation debates of some of President Donald Trump’s other Cabinet picks, including that of former Georgia Congressman Tom Price, now the health secretary.

Senators’ questions did not focus on whether Perdue was qualified to lead the 106,000 workers in the Agriculture Department. Nor did anyone bring up his biggest controversies from his eight years as governor, including his multiple dust-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 in the Trump White House.

President Donald Trump’s proposed 21 percent budget cut to the Department of Agriculture and his stances on immigration and trade have created 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. For some farm state senators, it may not pay to make an enemy of Perdue now when they may need a favor next year.

In his testimony, Perdue, 70, laid out his background as the son of dairy farmers in Middle Georgia while focusing 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 increasing 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.

At the top of the hearing, Perdue brought out former Georgia U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss, who himself once ran the Senate Agriculture panel, as well as U.S. Rep. David Scott to speak on his behalf.

Scott, a Democrat from Atlanta, highlighted Perdue’s bipartisan credentials, telling stories of their time in the Georgia Senate, and he used an extended biblical reference to describe what he saw as Perdue’s role as governor and that of his two Democratic predecessors in Georgia’s flag fight.

“God chose three people to get us to the promised land,” Scott said. “Jacob, which was our Zell Miller. ‘Cause Zell Miller had to go up and wrestle with this issue. And then came our Moses, Roy Barnes, who provided the leadership right to it. But then we had our Joshua that got us across the Jordan River.”

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 ethics record in Georgia 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 those 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 complimented 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 17, it’s possible senators may not have time to confirm him before they leave.

Donning the same blue tie with tractors that he wore when he interviewed for the job in Trump Tower, Perdue arrived in the Russell Senate Office Building on 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, was at Thursday’s hearing but signaled he did not think it was appropriate to ask his first cousin questions.

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

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