Agriculture Secretary nominee Sonny Perdue on Thursday sought to reassure farm-state senators in both parties who are fearful about the impact of President Donald Trump's proposed deep cuts to farm programs, promising to promote agricultural trade and create jobs in the struggling industry.
At his confirmation hearing, the former Georgia governor stressed bipartisanship, reaching out to Democrats who have complained about Trump's lack of experience in agriculture and his proposed 21 percent cut to the farm budget.
"In Georgia, agriculture is one area where Democrats and Republicans consistently reached across the aisle and work together," Perdue said.
He told Republican and Democratic senators concerned about Trump's trade agenda that "trade is really the answer" for farmers dealing with low crop prices and said he would be a "tenacious advocate and fighter" for rural America when dealing with the White House and other agencies.
Perdue, 70, would be the first Southerner in the post for more than two decades. His rural roots — he is a farmer's son and has owned several agricultural companies — and his conciliatory tone have already won him support from some Democrats, including Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow, the top Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Committee, who said after the hearing that she will vote to confirm Perdue.
Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., has also said she will vote for him. But both women brought up concerns in the hearing, with Stabenow saying "it's clear that rural America has been an afterthought" in the Trump administration.
Stabenow said many rural communities are still struggling to recover from the Great Recession.
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"Especially during these times of low prices for agriculture and uncertainty around budget, trade and immigration, we need the next secretary to be an unapologetic advocate for all of rural America," she said.
Farm-state Republicans have also criticized the proposed budget cuts and have been wary of the president's opposition of some trade agreements, as trade is a major economic driver in the agricultural industry.
Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., said at the hearing that producers need a market for their goods, and "during this critical time, the importance of trade for the agriculture industry cannot be overstated."
Perdue noted a growing middle class around the world that is hungry for U.S. products.
"Food is a noble thing to trade," Perdue said, adding that he would "continue to tirelessly advocate that within the administration."
Trump has harshly criticized some international trade deals, saying they have killed American jobs. But farmers who make more than they can sell in the United States have heavily profited from those deals, and are hoping his anti-trade policies will include some exceptions for agriculture.
Republican Sen. Steve Daines of Montana said Perdue's pro-trade comments were "music to the ears of Montana farmers and ranchers."
Perdue also said he would work with the agriculture industry to create jobs and support landowners in their efforts to conserve farmland in a sustainable way.
USDA is also responsible for nutrition programs, and congressional Republicans have signaled a willingness to trim the $70 billion food stamp program. Perdue signaled he may be supportive of those efforts, saying "we hope we can do that even more efficiently and effectively than we have."
One of Perdue's main responsibilities will be working with Congress on a new five-year farm bill, and he pledged to help senators sustain popular crop insurance programs and fix what they see as problems with government dairy programs.
Perdue was the last of Trump's Cabinet nominees to be chosen, and his nomination was delayed for weeks as the administration prepared his ethics paperwork. Perdue eventually said he would step down from several companies bearing his name to avoid conflicts of interest.
Roberts said the committee will soon schedule a vote on Perdue's nomination, and it would then go to the floor. He and Trump's choice for labor secretary, Alexander Acosta, are two of the final nominees for Trump's Cabinet still pending in the Senate. Acosta was nominated in February after the withdrawal of the original nominee, Andrew Puzder.