South Maintains Clout on Ag Committee with New Member

Republican Sen. Kelly Leoffler, who took office on Monday, will replace fellow Georgian David Perdue on the Senate Agriculture Committee in a step that will assure a strong Southern bloc on the panel. The committee oversees the farm program, although its top issue this year may be reauthorization of child nutrition programs, headlined by WIC and school lunch, that cost $30 billion a year.

A wealthy Republican businesswoman, Loeffler took the oath of office from Vice President Mike Pence on Monday during a three-minute ceremony in the Senate. She was escorted into the chamber by Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst and greeted by warm applause from her new colleagues after taking the oath. Besides Agriculture, Loeffler will serve on the Health and Veterans Affairs committees, according to aides. She succeeded three-term Sen. Johnny Isakson, who resigned due to illness.

Besides Loeffler, the Southerners on the Agriculture Committee are Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Republicans John Boozman of Arkansas and Cindy Hyde-Smith of Mississippi. On the Democratic side, party Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois also is a member, giving the Agriculture Committee additional power.

“Kelly Loeffler and I will work closely with Georgia’s farmers and producers to ensure their voices are heard in the U.S. Senate,” said Perdue, who said he will join the Foreign Relations Committee after leaving Agriculture. “Together, we will continue to fight for farm families and rural communities.”

Perdue and Loeffler both must run for election this year if they want to remain in office. Perdue is at the end of his six-year term. Georgia will hold a special election in November to fill the final two years of Isakson’s term. Loeffler may face a Republican challenger. A farm lobbyist said Loeffler’s committee assignments have “much more to do with the reelection cycle than anything else.”

Senate committee assignments are revised whenever a new senator takes office. Isakson, for example, chaired the Veterans Affairs Committee so a replacement must be named there. A Senate Republican leadership aide said a new list of committee members and leaders would be announced in coming days. There has been little talk of turnover on the Agriculture Committee, with 11 Republican and nine Democratic members, beyond the Perdue-Loeffler switch.

Loeffler plans to vote to acquit President Trump in a Senate impeachment trial, reported the AP. The political newcomer has described herself as “pro-Second Amendment, pro-Trump, pro-military and pro-wall.” A business executive, Loeffler has pledged to spend $20 million of her own money to win the November election.

“Our remaining ‘to do’ list for the 116th Congress includes reauthorizing child nutrition programs, the Commodity Exchange Act, the U.S. Grains Standards Act, and (the) Mandatory Price Reporting,” said Senate Agriculture chairman Pat Roberts. The committee also will monitor implementation of the 2018 farm law and review Trump nominees for USDA posts, he said.

The last time Congress overhauled child nutrition programs was in 2010. Roberts and Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow, the senior Democrat on the panel, collaborated on legislation in 2016 to expand USDA’s summer food program, which provides meals for school-age children, but it failed to move forward. They renewed efforts last year but made little visible progress. Rep. Bobby Scott, chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, also began work last year on a child nutrition bill.

Before it was clear that Loeffler would replace Perdue on the Agriculture Committee, rather than join him, there was speculation that panel membership would include both senators from three states – Iowa, Minnesota, and Georgia. Instead, it will have two pairs: Republicans Ernst and Chuck Grassley of Iowa and Democrats Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith of Minnesota. Counting Agriculture, seven of the Senate’s 20 committees have two such pairs of senators. The Judiciary Committee has three, with both senators from California, Iowa, and Texas.

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