Sonny Perdue, Trump’s ag pick, still awaits Senate vetting

Sonny Perdue wasn't mentioned by name when President Donald Trump took to Twitter on Friday to lambaste Senate Democrats for slow-walking consideration of his two remaining Cabinet picks, but Georgia's former two-term governor was clearly high on the chief executive's mind.

It's been more than six weeks since Trump tapped the Republican to be his secretary of agriculture, and the Senate has yet to schedule a confirmation hearing for Perdue, much less a floor vote.

What was not made clear in Trump’s tweet is that the delay has little to do with Congress at this point.

Perdue’s paperwork has yet to technically arrive in the Senate, which means lawmakers have been unable to officially vet Perdue. The holdup appears to be with the FBI, which is conducting a comprehensive background check that’s customary for all Cabinet nominees, according to two Republican senators and a handful of aides in the Senate and administration.

Still unclear is what is causing the slowness or whether any red flags have been raised.

Two transition officials and one White House aide not authorized to speak on the record insisted that nothing is wrong and that the delay has to do with Perdue being the last Cabinet nominee announced by the Trump administration, which put him at the back of the line as the feds screened other high-level picks.

“There are no holdups, there are no glitches,” one transition official said. “It’s just an overload of work that had to be done” at the FBI.

The FBI said it does not comment on an individual’s background investigation.

The delay has led to frustration and some uneasiness on the part of Perdue’s allies, farm state lawmakers and Republican U.S. Rep. Pat Roberts of Kansas, the chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, who has underscored the need to quickly install a new agriculture head.

“As soon as we get the paperwork we’ll move,” Roberts said Thursday. “We can pass him out of committee, we can pass him on the floor.”

Two administration aides said they are optimistic that all the paperwork can be delivered to the Senate within the next week.

Family matters

Even though the Senate can’t formally vet Perdue at the moment, many senators have gotten a jump start by meeting privately with the former veterinarian and businessman.

Perdue has been spotted on multiple occasions crisscrossing the basement corridors of the U.S. Capitol on his way to meetings wearing cowboy boots and one of several agriculture-themed ties.

Never a creature of Washington, Perdue is meeting many senators for the first time, relying on his retail skills honed during two stints on the campaign trail in Georgia.

“He’s a more natural schmoozer than I am,” said his first cousin, Georgia U.S. Sen. David Perdue. “He makes friends easily and he’s really enjoyed meeting the senators.”

David Perdue has temporarily designated a part of his Capitol Hill office for his cousin and is letting him stay at his nearby apartment during the transition process. Several of David Perdue’s aides, some of whom previously worked for Sonny Perdue when he was governor, have also volunteered their time to help out the Cabinet nominee.

The two men are close, going back to their childhoods in Middle Georgia. But other than providing logistical and emotional support, David Perdue has largely been hands-off as his cousin meets with his Senate colleagues.

“I have to be careful — I’m a member of the Ag Committee,” David Perdue said in an interview last month. “There’s not much I can help him with. I have a full-time job as a senator.”

Still, ensuring his cousin's confirmation is a big test for the first-term senator and his newfound political clout as a key ally of the Trump administration. Perdue personally vouched for his cousin during a private meeting in December with the then-president-elect at the Trump Tower.

David Perdue said he’s not worried about his cousin’s chances of confirmation. He said he doesn’t want Sonny Perdue to face any tense or heavily partisan moments that have been frequent during the consideration of other Cabinet nominations.

“He’s a big boy. He knew that going in,” David Perdue said. “He’s willing to go through it, and he’ll survive it just like all the rest of these guys will, I think. He recognizes that part of the political game.”

Prep work

Shortly after his nomination was announced, Sonny Perdue set aside time to win the blessings of a pair of onetime Democratic colleagues now in the House of Representatives: U.S. Reps. David Scott of Atlanta and Sanford Bishop of Albany. And so far, Perdue has managed to avoid much criticism from Democrats in the Senate.

In fact, many Senate Democrats have been complimentary of the governor, once a Democrat, himself, before switching parties in 1998. Many have touted his grasp of the agricultural issues important to their home states.

“After meeting with Governor Perdue today, I look forward to confirming him to this important post and working with him to get results for North Dakota farmers and ranchers,” Democratic U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, a key swing vote, said last month.

Some of the bipartisanship has to do with the fact that agriculture tends to be more of a regionalized issue than a partisan one. Perdue also has pre-existing relationships with several former Democratic governors who are now serving in the Senate, including U.S. Sens. Tim Kaine of Virginia and Joe Manchin of West Virginia.

“I was his guest once at the Peach Bowl when Virginia Tech was playing and losing to the University of Georgia,” Kaine said last month. “I am inclined to be supportive, but I don’t make decisions about people until after their hearings are done. So I’ll monitor that. But I think highly of him.”

Democratic leaders have so far held their tongues on Perdue. It's unclear whether that's because they support his nomination, don't think it's worth the fight or are waiting until later to unveil attacks. And Perdue has a long record in Georgia that will be tough to hide from should opponents look to dig up something from his time in office or later as the leader of a failed trucking company.

A few environmental groups have criticized Perdue’s appointment. Otherwise, he’s received wide support across the agriculture community.

Democrats do not have the votes to kill any of Trump’s Cabinet nominees, and barring any eleventh-hour developments, Perdue is expected to be easily confirmed. U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri, a member of the leadership team, said he’s confident Perdue can win the support of upward of four-fifths of the Senate.

Otherwise, Perdue's preparation process ahead of his confirmation hearing also includes studying up on the Agriculture Department's sprawling portfolio and practicing how to act under pressure during his confirmation hearing. The transition team denied a request for an interview.

Only one other Cabinet designee is waiting for his paperwork to be filed with the Senate: Alexander Acosta, whom Trump tapped to be secretary of labor on Feb. 16 after his first pick withdrew. The Senate has confirmed Trump’s 13 other Cabinet-level picks.