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Perdue Confirmation Hearing Likely Mid-to-Late February, Sources Say

The Senate Agriculture Committee is still pulling together background information on President Donald Trump’s nominee for agriculture secretary, Sonny Perdue, before setting the date for a confirmation hearing, has learned. Meanwhile, a key Iowa adviser in Trump’s campaign has been named as a liaison to help fill other political appointments at the USDA, which some think bodes well for bringing in a Midwesterner to broaden the department’s leadership.

Even most members of the Agriculture Committee have said little about Perdue, although it’s unusual for members of the normally bipartisan panel to telegraph a lot of concerns ahead of time. One who has spoken out is Senator Charles Grassley, the veteran Iowa Republican who farms, along with family members, near Cedar Falls, Iowa.

Grassley told reporters Tuesday that “I’m reserving judgement” about Perdue, a Southerner who also has a farm background and who was governor of Georgia for two terms. Grassley said before Trump announced his choice that he was hoping the nominee would be from “north of the Mason-Dixon line.” Grassley said this week that Southerners may not always appreciate the institution of the family farm in Northern states. He’s been trying for years, with mixed success, to limit USDA payments to modest-size farms, something opposed by committee members from Southern states with large operations.

Grassley said he hasn’t yet met with Perdue but he expects to visit with him in a few days, and that the hearing is likely “within a couple of weeks or less.”

Staff members at the National Farmers Union believe the confirmation hearing is more likely to happen in mid-to-late February.

One long-time ag lobbyist told that in theory the committee could hold a hearing on Perdue before it receives his paperwork on ethics and personal finances, but a vote isn’t likely until that’s done. “The committees have to review that stuff before they are going to be willing to vote on him,” said the lobbyist. “Nobody expects any issues, but still they want that assurance.”

“Once we receive materials from Governor Perdue, we'll schedule a confirmation hearing,” the committee’s press contact, Meghan Cline, said in an email message Monday. “No date has been set yet.”

Meanwhile, Grassley said he’d like to see Iowa’s agriculture secretary, Bill Northey, chosen as either deputy secretary or for another top administrative post in the department. Northey is a past president of a group that represents state agriculture departments and has a nationwide network of agricultural contacts.

Northey said Tuesday that he would be interested in working at USDA but that he hasn’t been interviewed for a position yet. He’s confident that leadership at the USDA will be broadened to other regions.

“I know they’ve had a lot of good folks they’ve been talking to,” he told Tuesday. “There are definitely some in the upper Midwest who would be very good.”

Northey wouldn’t identify any, but a newsletter, The Hagstrom Report, has listed former Indiana Agriculture Director Ted McKinney as one of several possible deputy secretaries.

Northey thinks it’s a good sign for the Midwest that Trump has named Sam Clovis, a former Sioux City college economics professor and radio talk show host, as White House liaison to lead the transition at USDA.

Of Perdue, Northey said, “he’s got a great reputation as a solid leader and as somebody who can put a team together.”

The role of Perdue and Trump’s team in putting together other political appointees at USDA remains to be seen. Usually the ag secretary and White House collaborate.

As one lobbyist explained, “Usually in an administration, the secretary gets to pick some of his or her own people, and the administration picks some. Nobody knows how that will go this time.”

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