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UPDATE: Johanns resigning from USDA to pursue Nebraska Senate seat

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns is resigning from his post in the Bush administration to pursue the U.S. Senate seat to be vacated by outgoing Republican Chuck Hagel next year.

"After careful thought and difficult deliberation, I am writing to inform you that I have decided to pursue a new opportunity to serve this great nation," Johanns wrote in a letter of resignation to President Bush sent Wednesday afternoon.

Johanns, who succeeded Ann Veneman as U.S. Secretary of Agriculture in early 2005, will be immediately succeeded as ag secretary by current Deputy Secretary Chuck Conner. Johanns, who the President said has "worked hard to put in motion a good farm bill...a framwork for success" informed Bush on Wednesday that Conner will continue the course USDA has taken toward the 2007 farm bill.

"I remember when Mike came here to the Oval he said to me, he said, 'What I'm going to do is I'm going to travel the country and reach out to the stakeholders to lay the foundation for farm legislation.' And that's exactly what he did. And I got feedback from all around America that Mike Johanns listened, he wisely shepherded the process in such a way that we've got a good farm bill in front of the Congress," Bush said Thursday morning. "I want to thank you for your good work getting this teed up.

"I feel comforatble asking Chuck Conner, the Deputy Secretary, to serve as the acting secretary."

Johanns said his successor, who he called a "good man who shares our passion for agriculture," will go a long way to continuing efforts toward the 2007 farm bill that started early on in his tenure as ag secretary.

"I can assure you that I leave the farm bill finalization in supremely capable hands," Johanns said. "Deputy Secretary Chuck Conner has been intimately involved in the deliberations -- from the development of our proposals to his attendance at virtually every hearing during the House mark-up."

Johanns praised Bush for setting the stage for the USDA Farm Bill Forums that took place in 2005 and 2006, when the ag secretary traveled the country to gather input from farmers and other ag stakeholders on this year's farm bill.

"Your suggestion to talk to as many farmers, ranchers and stakeholders as possible in developing the Administration's 2007 farm bill proposal proved very wise," Johanns said. "As you know, their comments formed the foundation of our proposals, which focus our programs while providing unwavering commitment to U.S. agriculture."

Johanns said Thursday his decision to leave his post at USDA wasn't an easy one to make, but said he's answering a call to return to the state he calls home.

"The decision to leave this post has not been an easy one. I grew up with farmers and ranchers as my childhood heroes and my mentors," he said. "Representing them in Washington has been a great privilege."

Sources close to Johanns say the former Nebraska governor will now join an already crowded race for Hagel's Senate seat. Reports indicate Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning, businessman Pat Flynn and former U.S. Representative and Omaha mayor Hal Daub are currently seeking the party's nomination.

Beyond the primaries, the announcement of Johanns' pursuit of his home state's Senate seat could set the stage for a throwback campaign -- the former Lincoln mayor could be pitted against another high-profile veteran of Nebraska politics, former Democratic Senator Bob Kerrey, who is weighing a bid for his party's nomination for a Senate bid in 2008, according to reports. Kerry currently serves as president of New School University in New York.

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns is resigning from his post in the Bush administration to pursue the U.S. Senate seat to be vacated by outgoing Republican Chuck Hagel next year.

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