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Iowans Taking on Ted Cruz, Push for USDA Nominee Northey

The Iowa Republican Party pointedly told Texas Senator Ted Cruz that he endangers his chances of winning the Iowa presidential caucuses in the future if he persists in blocking a Senate vote on Bill Northey to become the No. 3 USDA official. Iowa Senator Charles Grassley said he will circulate a letter calling on Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to force a vote on Northey, currently Iowa’s elected state agriculture secretary.

Cruz won the Iowa GOP caucuses two years ago with the strong support of rural voters despite advocating a five-year phase-out of the federal ethanol mandate. Nearly four months ago, the Texan invoked the informal Senate practice of putting a “hold” on Northey’s nomination for agriculture undersecretary as leverage for Midwestern concessions on biofuel policy. Midwesterners have refused to yield.

“Should Senator Cruz wish to remain in good standing with Iowa Republicans,” he should “release the hold of Secretary Northey’s nomination and end the political points he is attempting to gain in an election year,” said a resolution adopted by the Iowa Republican Party. The state Republican chairman, Jeffery Kaufmann, said in a letter to Cruz, “the delay in the nomination has caused Iowans from all over the political spectrum — but particularly your former supporters — to become frustrated with your actions.”

Cruz won the GOP caucuses with a plurality of 28%, followed by proethanol President Trump with 24% and Florida Senator Marco Rubio with 23%. Political analysts say Cruz, from the No. 1 oil state and facing reelection this year, benefits politically by calling for changes in the biofuels mandate in the name of protecting blue-collar oil refinery jobs.

Grassley told reporters that “some of us” will ask Senate colleagues to sign a letter to end the stalling on Northey. A half-dozen Midwesterners forced Cruz to publicly object early this month to a vote on the nomination. “Let’s hope that we get a lot of signatures to do that (prevent a filibuster), to show McConnell that he’s got the support of…a majority of senators to move forward,” said Grassley. The Senate leader has been unwilling to intervene in the dispute so far.

If confirmed, Northey would be in charge of U.S. crop subsidies, crop insurance, and land stewardship programs and arguably would be the third-most important USDA official after Secretary Sonny Perdue and Deputy Secretary Steve Censky. Northey is nearing the end of his third term as a state official and must decide soon whether to pursue another term as state agriculture secretary or wait for a Senate vote. The filing period in Iowa runs from February 26 to March 16.

The delay on Northey illuminates the slow pace of the Trump administration in filling the top posts at USDA. The Senate has confirmed only four of USDA’s 14 executives. Two nominees are blocked by Senate holds. The White House has announced two other nominees, but they await a hearing. There is no administration nominee for six other posts, including the subcabinet official in charge of meat safety or public nutrition.

Produced with FERN, non-profit reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.
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