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WASHINGTON - Former Georgia governor George “Sonny” Perdue sought to assure farm-state senators on Thursday that he understands the importance of trade for farmers and supports many of the U.S. Department of Agriculture programs targeted in last week’s proposed 21% budget cut.

President Trump’s nominee to head the department, named just the day before the president took office, said he was not consulted on the proposed $4.7 billion cut over this year’s funding level that would eliminate water and wastewater loan programs, the department’s statistical capabilities and foreign food aid.

Asked by the ranking Democrat on the Agriculture Committee, Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, whether he supported clean water for rural communities, access to research tools, and the USDA organic program — programs she said are “zeroed out” in the president’s budget — Perdue said he did. Asked if he had been consulted during preparation of the budget blueprint, Perdue was clear he had not.

“I had no input in the budget,” he said.

Perdue’s late nomination has some in rural communities concerned that Trump has made agriculture policy a low priority, and several senators on the committee, including North Dakota Democrat Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, echoed that view. Perdue sought to change that perception by joking that while there had been “some anxiety” over the late nomination, “I think the president saved the best for last.”

The two-hour-and-20 minute hearing was mostly friendly and non-confrontational, steering clear of questions about Perdue’s past ethical lapses, including the 13 complaints to the Georgia Ethics Commission during his two terms as governor. Most senators wanted to explore with the nominee, who was raised on a dairy farm, the parochial interests of their states, like the margin protection program established in the 2014 farm bill to help dairy farmers. Other issues raised during the questioning was improving the health of national forests, preserving the sugar program and the impact of new immigration policies on farm labor needs.

Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., said farmers are particularly concerned about finding strong markets for their goods.

“Now more than ever agriculture needs a voice — an advocate — at the highest levels of government,” Roberts said.

He asked Perdue to work “hand-in-hand” with the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative to expand export markets. Roberts added as an aside that the new administration has “too many cooks in the kitchen when it comes to trade.”

Perdue assured him he would be a strong advocate for trade and that he had talked while awaiting his confirmation hearing with the nominee for trade representative, Robert Lighthizer, and with Trump’s Commerce Department pick, Wilbur Ross.

Perdue, who has a doctorate in veterinary medicine from the University of Georgia, sprinkled his testimony with homey, farm country references. He said he’d picked watermelons in his youth with one member of the committee, his cousin Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga. He mentioned training bird dogs and milking cows, and said he avoided “dangling participles” after instruction from his English teacher mother. And he offered some wisdom from his late father: “If you take care of the land, it will take care of you.”

In his opening statement, he said that after a stint in the U.S. Air Force and briefly practicing veterinary medicine in North Carolina, he returned to Georgia to build a grain elevator for his county in 1976.

“Farming and farmers have been my life ever since,” he said. “Agriculture is in my heart.”

Agriculture Secretary nominee Sonny Perdue finally faces the Senate on Thursday

Perdue made it clear he has been paying attention to falling commodity prices and the 50% reduction in net farm income since the record high in 2013. He said he understands concerns about proposed cuts to local government water and wastewater financing programs but that they might be addressed by Trump’s pending infrastructure initiatives. He said he understood much of the opioid addition epidemic affected rural communities.

Maryland Democrat Sen. Chris Van Hollen and Ohio Democrat Sen. Sherrod Brown were especially critical of proposals to kill funding for the Chesapeake Bay regional restoration project and the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. Brown called the plans “ludicrous.”

Those cuts were proposed in Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency budget. Perdue said he planned to work closely with EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt so that agency regulations and policy goals aren’t working at “cross purposes.”

If confirmed, he said he would pursue four goals: to maximize the opportunity to create jobs; “customer service everyday”; to meet consumers’ expectations for meeting food safety standards; and to expand markets for agriculture goods.

Vermont Democrat Sen. Patrick Leahy was one of several senators who said they hoped Perdue could solve the problem of using two-thirds of the U.S. Forest Service budget to fight wildfires.Trump's budget would fully fund fire preparedness and suppression programs at 100% of the 10-year average cost.

Leahy also went to bat for his state’s dairy farmers, who have trouble using temporary H-2A agricultural worker visas when their need of labor is not seasonal but year round. After hearing the same concern from Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., Perdue said, “I’ve heard that loud and clear.”

Stabenow and Gillibrand also asked Perdue to pursue a more reliable risk management tool for their states' dairy farmers as milk prices have declined sharply in recent years. The House Agriculture Committee held a hearing on dairy pricing on Wednesday.

Perdue is likely to be reported favorably by the committee and is likely to win confirmation although his nomination has prompted some opposition. MoveOn.org has an online petition urging senator to vote no that had garnered 38,781 names by mid-afternoon Thursday. In the committee room, an unidentified woman stood during Perdue's opening statement shouting "Stop subsidizing violence," and was escorted out.

The hearing was held in one of the most elegant and historic chambers on Capitol Hill, the Kennedy Caucus room in the Russell Building, with its 12 Corinthian marble columns, red drapes and intricate wood paneling. It was there that the 1912 investigation of the sinking of the Titanic took place, where the Army-McCarthy hearings unfolded, where Estes Kefauver revealed the power of organized crime and where the Watergate Committee met. It’s also where John F. Kennedy declared his candidacy for president, for whom it’s named.

Roberts said a vote on the nomination will be scheduled “ASAP.”

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