After weeks of speculation, Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., made it official Thursday that he would be stepping down from the ranking member of the Senate Agriculture Committee and Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., would be taking over.
Cochran asserted his seniority for the post, and Roberts said Cochran has his full support and helped usher in unanimous support for the change. Cochran joined the Senate Agriculture Committee after being elected to the U.S. Senate in 1978. He has previously served as committee chairman from 2003 to 2005.
"I will use the experiences I've gained in serving on the committee since 1979 to help quickly advance a new Farm Bill that will meet the needs of our country’s farmers, small businesses and those who rely on the nutrition programs under the Committee’s jurisdiction," Cochran said.
"Rest assured, I will remain a strong and vocal champion for agriculture as a senior member of the committee. I will retain my Finance Committee seat and as a senior member of this committee, I am able to affect trade policy, especially ag trade, tax reform, and rural health care," Roberts said. The action allows him to assert his seniority as ranking member of the Rules Committee.
Dale Moore, deputy director of public policy at the American Farm Bureau Federation and former staffer for Roberts, noted that he expects Roberts made the move strategically. Rather than Republicans tearing themselves up over who would be in the ranking position, Moore said Roberts' decision to step down puts "Republicans 10 miles farther down the road than that process could be" if a battered fight was created between the two.
Moore called Cochran the "Dean of Agriculture" on Capitol Hill given his tenure, expertise and time spent on the appropriations process and ag committee.
The change-up could bring a substantially different farm bill out of the Senate this year. Cochran voted against the widely supported bill in the Senate, stating it was not modified enough to make it more equitable to crops grown predominantly in Southern states.
American Soybean Association president Danny Murphy welcomed Cochran to the post. "He has been a strong leader on risk management, export, conservation, food aid, and agricultural research programs important to all farmers, and we look forward to continuing to work closely with him and his staff as Ranking Member.”
Collin Woodall, vice president of government affairs for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA), said Cochran could bring different priorities to the committee. He expects the 2012 farm bills to be the starting point in 2013, but likely will be quickly dismissed and the committees will start from scratch.
Moore downplayed Cochran's no vote and said Cochran and his team have never been the type to make demands of others, but rather works alongside of others easily.
Incoming Senators Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., and Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., will take seats on the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee. They are replacing Sen. Kent Conrad, D- N.D., and Sen. Dick Lugar, R-Ind., both of whom left the chamber.
Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., was tapped to head the Senate Appropriations Committee following the death of longtime chairman Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii.
Rep. Tim Scott, R-S.C., was recently named as the replacement for Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., who is retiring to take the helm at the Heritage Foundation.