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USDA nominee gets nod for vote

Vilsack favoredby Senate panel by Frank E. Lockwood | February 3, 2021 at 2:25 a.m.

WASHINGTON -- The nomination of Tom Vilsack as agriculture secretary received swift and bipartisan support Tuesday from the Senate Agriculture Committee.

After a controversy-free confirmation hearing Tuesday morning, committee members reported the nomination favorably to the full Senate Tuesday afternoon.

The voice vote was unanimous.

The fast-tracking occurred despite the committee lacking a chairman; U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., exited Congress on Jan. 3 and a replacement has not been named.

Sen. John Boozman of Arkansas, the committee's ranking Republican, and Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, the committee's top Democrat, took turns Tuesday wielding the gavel.

Vilsack, President Joe Biden's pick to be agriculture secretary, participated remotely in Tuesday's proceedings.

In the committee hearing room, the chairman's seat remained empty.

Vilsack, a former Iowa governor, is already a familiar face in the farming community; he held the same job in the cabinet of President Barack Obama and is highly regarded, Boozman said.

"You have an excellent reputation, and we look forward to working with you in the future," Boozman said. "I've enjoyed working with you in the past and look forward to strengthening our relationship as we do good work in a very bipartisan nature on this committee to help our agriculture community."

After being sworn in, Vilsack fielded questions on a variety of topics, ranging from commodity prices and climate change to covid-19.

While Congress debates additional pandemic-relief measures, Vilsack emphasized the aid that is already in the pipeline.

"As Sen. Boozman indicated, [we] have to review the additional relief that's been ordered by Congress and try to get that into the hands of farmers, ranchers, producers and those in rural America as quickly, efficiently [and] as effectively as possible."

Committee members from both parties said they'd like to see Vilsack confirmed by the full Senate later this week, ahead of next week's impeachment trial.

With the upper chamber evenly divided 50-50, Republicans and Democrats are still in the midst of power-sharing negotiations that have hobbled some committees.

Stabenow, who is expected to serve as agriculture committee chairwoman once a deal is in place, said she and Boozman sought to avoid unnecessary delays.

"He and I have worked together on many, many issues over the years and I'm very excited that he'll be my partner on the committee," she told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. "We're moving forward in a bipartisan way to get us a secretary of agriculture and then we'll be moving forward on other matters as well."

Asked why it was important to move quickly, Stabenow said, "We need leadership at USDA."

"Our farmers and ranchers have been through so much instability," she said. "We need to be able to provide them stability so we can move forward. We've got a lot of important issues, whether it's the food supply chain issues or whether it's what's happening with hungry families in need. So we just need to get the leadership in place, so we can get going."

Early in the hearing, Stabenow praised Boozman, telling him, "Our strong relationship is really one of the best things about our committee and it makes it easier to put aside partisan politics and get things done."

"In the coming year, I'm looking forward to learning more about rice and timber and all the wonderful things in Arkansas, in addition to hearing more about the fortunes of your Arkansas Razorbacks," she said.

She also praised Vilsack for his past service.

"As the former agriculture secretary during all eight years of the Obama administration, you presided over the USDA with a steady hand and decisive leadership, which we appreciated," she said.

Afterward, Boozman predicted Vilsack would serve effectively.

"This is a person that has a tremendous amount of experience, and he's worked with all aspects of agriculture through the years, so I think he has the makings of being somebody who can have a significant impact on farm country in a positive way, so we're going to be working with him in that regard," Boozman said.

With the Senate evenly divided, Boozman expects the committee will ultimately have an even number of Democrats and Republicans.

That doesn't mean gridlock is inevitable, he suggested.

"In the past, the Senate Agriculture Committee has been very, very bipartisan, so hopefully we will continue that," Boozman said.

Arkansas Farm Bureau President Rich Hillman, a rice farmer from Carlisle, said he is glad to see Vilsack advancing.

"It is important to get an Agriculture Secretary in place so that we can get much needed pandemic relief to Arkansas agriculture, the state's number one industry," Hillman said in a written statement.

Portraying Vilsack as a secretary "who understands agriculture," Hillman said, "We look forward to working with him again to help Arkansas farmers and ranchers."

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