Vilsack confirmation is slowed by Senate fight over rules

The Senate scheduled confirmation hearings for half a dozen of President Biden’s cabinet nominees this week but Tom Vilsack, seeking to become agriculture secretary for the second time, was not among them. The Agriculture Committee cannot consider his nomination until Senate Republicans and Democrats agree on how to divide power in the chamber, said Senate staff workers on Monday.

With the retirement of Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas, the Agriculture Committee no longer has a chairman who can call a meeting. And with the defeat of committee member Sen. Kelly Loeffler of Georgia in a special election on Jan 5, Republicans no longer have a majority on the panel. Membership is split evenly, 9-9, just as the Senate has 50 Democrats and 50 Republicans.

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell indicated on Monday evening that he was ready to end the week-long impasse since it appeared Democrats would not eliminate the filibuster, which allow senators to prolong debate, or even talk to death, legislation that they oppose. “We look forward to organizing the Senate under Democratic control and start getting big, bold things done for the American people,” responded a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer. The filibuster was a sticking point in negotiations between Schumer and McConnell for an “organizing resolution” that spells out how legislation will be handled and how many members each party has on committees. Democrats control the Senate because Vice President Kamala Harris can break tie votes.

“The committee is in a period of transition so that decision has not been made,” said an Agriculture Committee staffer when asked about a hearing on Vilsack.

Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, the incoming chairwoman of the Agriculture Committee, wants a hearing on Vilsack as soon as possible but has been unable to act until the organizing resolution is adopted for the two-year session that began on Jan. 3.

Arkansas Sen. John Boozman, next in line among Republicans after Roberts to run the Agriculture Committee, does not have the authority to schedule a confirmation hearing, said spokesman Patrick Creamer. “The Agriculture Committee, as far as I know, is unable to do that until an organizing resolution” is adopted.

For the moment, Biden nominees are going to confirmation hearings before committees that have Republican majorities and which have hold-over Republican chairmen from last year.

Vilsack, a former governor of Iowa, was agriculture secretary throughout the Obama years. He has broad support in the farm sector to return to USDA. Some rural activists are calling for a more progressive agenda than the centrist approach taken by Vilsack, who says Democrats need to strengthen their ties to often-conservative rural voters.

Some state officials and members of Congress want the appointment of a rural envoy at the White House to encourage rural economic development, reported Politico. “Democratic lawmakers say that embarking on a rural strategy is an immediate way for President Joe Biden to draw a contrast with former President Donald Trump.”

The USDA has an array of rural development programs and a portfolio of grant and loan programs for housing, utilities and business that totals $39 billion. The money is sprinkled throughout the country and often seems dwarfed by the demand for assistance. The USDA is the lead federal department for economic development in rural areas and small cities.

Trump’s agriculture secretary, Sonny Perdue, eliminated the post of undersecretary for rural development in order to create the position of undersecretary for trade in May 2017. He hired an assistant to work in his office and to oversee rural development. “Rural America always has a seat at the table,” said the USDA in announcing the change. Lawmakers repeatedly called for restoration of the rural undersecretary.