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Bush taps Schafer for ag post

WASHINGTON - President Bush's surprise Oct. 31 nomination of former North Dakota Republican Gov. Ed Schafer to serve as Agriculture secretary should intensify the power of North Dakota and the Upper Midwest in the nation's capital, but it is uncl...

WASHINGTON - President Bush's surprise Oct. 31 nomination of former North Dakota Republican Gov. Ed Schafer to serve as Agriculture secretary should intensify the power of North Dakota and the Upper Midwest in the nation's capital, but it is unclear whether Schafer will help North Dakota's Democratic congressional delegation or House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson, D-Minn., achieve their goals in the 2007 farm bill.

North Dakota Agriculture Commissioner Roger Johnson said Schafer's nomination was "good news for North Dakota."

"I had the privilege of working with Ed for four years on the state Industrial Commission," said Johnson, an elected Democrat who serves as the president of the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture.

"Ed is an able administrator who knows how and when to delegate authority and to listen to the advice of experts. This appointment will give North Dakota an added clout in Washington. Together with the leadership of Sens. (Kent) Conrad and (Byron) Dorgan and Congressman (Earl) Pomeroy, Ed Schafer as secretary of agriculture will give stronger voice to our family farmers and ranchers."

Johnson added, "I anticipate Gov. Schafer will support North Dakota farm bill priorities to establish a permanent disaster program, rebalance loan rates for northern-tier crops and make investments in farm-based renewable energy."

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But the Bush administration is opposed to both the rebalancing of loan rates and the permanent disaster program.

Priorities

At a White House ceremony, Bush said Schafer's priorities as agriculture secretary would be to work with Congress to pass the farm bill, help to conclude the Doha world trade round and seek to open up new markets for U.S. beef.

"Ed Schafer's the right choice to fill this post," Bush said during an appearance with Schafer at the White House. "He was a leader on agricultural issues during his eight years as governor of North Dakota."

Schafer would succeed Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns, who resigned to return to Nebraska to run for the Senate seat being vacated by Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb.

At the White House announcement ceremony, Schafer said, "If I am honored with a Senate confirmation, it will be a great pleasure to join forces with the dedicated, talented and loyal employees of the USDA to enhance our country's vibrant agriculture economy, to advance renewable energy and protect America's food supply, improve nutrition and health, and conserveour natural resources. Mr. President, I come from an agriculture state, as do you. Growing up in that arena and focusing now on the USDA, I realize that the mission of this agency goes far beyond the services delivered to the preservation of a way of life that I believe is the foundation of thiscountry."

Schafer's governorship was not marked by a high level of activism on agriculture compared with other issues, but Bush noted that Schafer had worked to expand trade between the state and China, to spur North Dakota's biofuels industry and to increase economic opportunities in rural areas. Schafer was elected governor in 1992, serving two four-year terms and becoming the first Republican to be re-elected governor in the state. In 2002, he helped found Extend America, a wireless communications company based in North Dakota.

Schafer, 61, is the grandson of Danish immigrants who farmed. He grew up in Bismarck, N.D., in the business world. Before entering politics, he was president of Gold Seal Co., a household products company founded by his father.

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Confirmation timetable

Bush said the Senate should confirm Schafer quickly, but it is unlikely his nomination would be considered before the floor debate on the farm bill. Schafer would serve from the time he is confirmed through the end of the Bush administration in January 2009.

Conrad, who is divorced from Schafer's sister, was the first member of Congress to issue a statement.

"I just congratulated Gov. Schafer and said I welcomed his nomination as a fellow North Dakotan," Conrad said. "I hope he will support this farm bill, which is good for our state and the nation."

North Dakota farm leaders also were quick to offer their congratulations.

North Dakota Farmers Union President Robert Carlson said, "As governor, Ed Schafer and our organization worked on several state and federal issues that were important to North Dakota agriculture. We appreciated his tenacity in standing up for farmers and ranchers. He was steadfast in his convictions, regardless of political consequences."

North Dakota Farm Bureau President Eric Aasmundstad said, "Gov. Schafer is a businessman, but he also understands the business of agriculture in this country. Furthermore, he understands how important U.S. agriculture is in the global market.

"Farm Bureau members have always found Gov. Schafer to be a people person. He has an innate ability to interact with people, quickly understand their needs and respond accordingly. That will be important in this position, particularly as we look at implementing a new farm bill. It's good for everyone in this state to have a North Dakotan leading this important national office."

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Unexpected choice

But on Capitol Hill and among lobbyists, there was surprise that Schafer got the nomination and that acting Agriculture Secretary Chuck Conner did not. Conner, a former Senate Agriculture Committee staff director and longtime fixture on the agricultural scene in Washington, said he would return to his position as deputy secretary and work with Schafer.

Conner congratulated Schafer in a statement and in a meeting with reporters outside his office.

"I am eager to welcome him to the department and to work side by side with him to continue the tradition of strong leadership at USDA. I offer my full support to Governor Schafer, confident he will build on the agricultural accomplishments of this Administration and advance policies and programs that ensure continued strength in the agricultural economy."

But as senators and lobbyists congratulated Schafer, they also praised Conner. Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, in a statement congratulated Schafer but also said he wanted "to thank and commend Chuck Conner for the fine job he has done as acting secretary."

There had been rumors that Southern senators would object to Conner's nomination because he has taken outspoken positions on payment limitations. But Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., said she knew of no such objections. Lincoln told Agweek she was "shocked" that Conner didn't get the nomination.

"We've been dealing with him the past seven years," Lincoln said, adding that she does not think a former governor of North Dakota is going to be more sensitive to Southern issues than Conner would be.

Playing politics?

Senate Agriculture ranking member Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., said he was glad Bush had nominated Schafer and did not mention Conner.

One Senate aide said Bush's decision proved that the job of agriculture secretary "has always been a political position, especially in this administration."

American Farm Bureau Federation President Bob Stallman and National Farmers Union President Tom Buis both issued statements congratulating Schafer. But Stallman also praised Conner.

Other lobbyists said Conner deserved the top job, especially because he left a high-paying job at the Corn Refiners Association to become a White House agricultural aide when former Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman developed rocky relations with Congress during consideration of the 2002 farm bill.

One angry lobbyist said, "He should leave the administration in the middle of the farm bill and take a couple of his top aides with him. The administration would be lost."

Meanwhile, Conner told reporters gathered outside his office that he is sure Schafer will promote the Bush administration's farm bill positions. But Schafer already is under pressure to support provisions that Conrad has inserted into the Senate bill, which is expected on the floor next week, but that the administration opposes. Those provisions include increases in the target price and loan rates for wheat and other program crops, the sugar loan rate increase and the permanent disaster bill that Conrad worked on with Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont.

Peterson, who represents a Minnesota district bordering North Dakota, said in a statement that he has known Schafer for a long time and has "a good personal and professional relationship with him." But Peterson added, "The question is whether he will have to toe the administration's line or whether he will be able to soften their position on issues like sugar and permanent disaster assistance."

Pomeroy said, "I expect that Ed will fight for North Dakota's priorities in the farm bill, including maintaining a strong safety net for our producers and establishing a permanent disaster program."

Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, D-S.D., added, "I also hope that he will recognize appropriately the widespread support from producers in our part of the country for issues like mandatory country-of-origin labeling, investment in renewable energy research and development, and a strong commitment to important conservation programs."

Questions have been raised about whether the Bush administration is positioning Schafer to run against Sen. Dorgan, D-N.D., in 2010. Republicans unsuccessfully tried to recruit Schafer to run against North Dakota's Democratic senators in past years.

Some lobbyists and Capitol Hill aides noted that if Bush threatens to veto the farm bill over provisions that are popular in North Dakota, Dorgan could use that against him in a 2010 race. Dorgan said in a statement that Schafer had called him to tell him he had been nominated.

"I look forward to meeting and visiting with him as he begins the confirmation process here in the Senate," Dorgan said. "I think it's a real honor to have a North Dakotan nominated for a Cabinet position."

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