Politics

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

We go now to the latest round of Senate confirmation hearings. Barack Obama's Cabinet picks appear to be winning over lawmakers. Senators had warm words for the two we'll hear about now, beginning with the man nominated to be secretary of agriculture. NPR's Howard Berkes reports.

HOWARD BERKES: It was the kind of Senate reception every Cabinet choice wants. Here's Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin.

Senator TOM HARKIN (Democrat, Iowa; Chairman, Senate Agriculture Committee): I can tell you from my long history with Tom Vilsack, he knows production agriculture, what's needed to promote profitability and a better future, including for beginning farmers and ranchers.

BERKES: And here's the ranking Republican, Saxby Chambliss of Georgia.

Senator SAXBY CHAMBLISS (Republican, Georgia): I look forward to reporting the nomination out of committee and quickly approving the nomination on the Senate floor.

BERKES: In fact, there were no discouraging words for former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack, despite a petition campaign fighting his nomination. The issue there was Vilsack's support of genetically-modified food, but that didn't come up at the hearing. These were farm state senators, after all, interested in - well, here's how Arkansas Democrat Blanche Lincoln put it.

Senator BLANCHE LINCOLN (Democrat, Arkansas): We're looking for a champion. We're looking for someone who is going to really recognize the hard work, the dedication, the pride that exists in all of our farm families.

BERKES: Whether they have big farms or small, or a farm in Iowa or Arkansas or Georgia or anywhere else, this was a nudge to Vilsack. It's not just about corn and soybeans in Iowa. There was another nudge, about limiting farm subsidies, something President-elect Obama has vowed to do. Kansas Republican Pat Roberts urged caution.

Senator PAT ROBERTS (Republican, Kansas): These programs are indeed necessary. We must be fiscally responsible and frugal, but they only represent a mere one-quarter of one percent of federal spending.

BERKES: Vilsack obliged with this response.

Mr. TOM VILSACK (Secretary of Agriculture-Nominee): I think it's incumbent upon USDA to recognize the importance of that farm safety net. I think it's also important to make sure that people who deserve to get support are getting that support, and folks who don't deserve to get it aren't getting it.

BERKES: Vilsack promised to resolve once and for all a longstanding dispute over discrimination against black farmers.

Mr. VILSACK: Discrimination in any form will not be tolerated in this department.

BERKES: He promised to focus on food safety, alternative fuels, nutrition in federal food programs, sustainable federal forests, supporting family farms, and bolstering rural economies. And Tom Vilsack was the only one in the room who used the phrase, "If confirmed as agriculture secretary." It seemed a done deal to everyone else. Howard Berkes, NPR News.

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