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Interim Chief Is Favorite for New Head of USDA

U.S. farm and agribusiness groups have an early favorite to become President Bush's new agriculture secretary -- Chuck Conner, the interim chief and an old hand at U.S. farm policy.

"He's the front-runner" of the handful of potential nominees to succeed Mike Johanns, one farm lobbyist said Friday, the day after Johanns resigned.

Johanns is expected to run for U.S. Senate in Nebraska.

White House spokeswoman Emily Lawrimore said the administration "is moving quickly" to replace him but declined to estimate when a nominee will be named. Bush's nominees have varied widely in background and government experience.

Other potential nominees include Agriculture Undersecretary Tom Dorr, former House Agriculture Committee chairman Larry Combest, former U.S. agricultural trade negotiator Richard Crowder and former Rep. Tom Osborne, who unsuccessfully ran for the Republican nomination for governor in Nebraska last year.

An Indiana farm boy, Conner was a high-ranking staff worker on the Senate Agriculture Committee for a decade before heading an agribusiness trade group beginning in 1997. In 2001, he became the White House agriculture advisor and in May 2005, he became deputy agriculture secretary.

Conner is regarded by farm and agribusiness groups as a straight-talking, knowledgeable policy-maker who keeps an open mind. "I respect the man," Sen Kent Conrad, North Dakota Democrat, said in a statement, even though the two have disagreed on farm policy.

Analyst Mark McMinimy of Standford Washington Research noted the administration's tenure ends in 16 months, so the next agriculture secretary will be taking a short-term job.

"It wouldn't be terribly shocking, given his background ... if he (Conner) were eventually to be nominated as the secretary," said McMinimy. However, he noted the White House could look elsewhere, perhaps to bolster someone's career. While a White House aide, Conner took the lead for the administration in wrapping up the 2002 farm law. He has been the lead USDA negotiator on this year's farm bill as well.

Two farm lobbyists mentioned the possibility the White House might use a recess appointment to name an agriculture secretary. They pointed to the risk that Southern senators, who oppose administration proposals to rein in crop subsidies, could delay a confirmation vote.

Recess appointments, made while Congress is out of town, bypass the need for a Senate vote on a nominee and can last up to can last as long as nearly two years, according to the Congressional Research Service.

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