Trump eying an Agriculture pick that locked horns with meatpacking industry

United States Senate Heidi Heitkamp attends 2016 Concordia Summit - Day 1 at Grand Hyatt New York on September 19, 2016 in New York City.
Bryan Bedder | Getty Images for Concordia Summit

Democratic U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp from North Dakota is President-elect Donald Trump's top choice as Agriculture Secretary, according to a report.

Politico reported Saturday she was Trump's leading choice for the Agriculture post. The first-term senator met with the president-elect at Trump Tower on Dec. 2.

However, Heitkamp, a moderate Democrat, is facing pressure from her own party to stay in the Senate seat to avoid it going to a Republican if a special election in North Dakota were to be called in the traditionally red state.

If Trump were to nominate Heitkamp to join his cabinet, he would get a maverick of sorts among Democrats. She is known to have gone against fellow Democrats and even President Barack Obama. For example, Heitkamp voted to approve the Keystone XL Pipeline Bill in 2015. Obama vetoed the controversial measure, which would have allowed the construction of a nearly 1,200-mile crude oil pipeline from Canada to Nebraska.

Outgoing Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada told CNN in an interview Monday, "I have no idea what they're going to do. I just know Heidi Heitkamp, I would doubt very seriously, she being the populist that she is, that she would" take a cabinet post in the Trump administration.

Still, if she is tapped by Trump and opts to leave the Senate for a cabinet post, the state law in North Dakota requires an election to be held within 95 days of the Senate vacancy, and a GOP win could allow Republicans to expand their majority in the chamber to 53-27.

Heitkamp has served in the U.S. Senate since January 2013. She's a former North Dakota attorney general who took on the meatpacking industry in the late 1990s over pricing transparency and prevailed.

A spokesperson for Heitkamp declined comment on the cabinet speculation. However, the spokesperson said a previously released statement from the Senator ahead of her meeting with Trump still stands: "Whatever job I do, I hope to work with the president-elect and all of my colleagues in Congress on both sides of the aisle to best support my state."

Messages requesting comment from the Trump transition team were not immediately returned.

Heitkamp, 61, is a member of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry. Also, she sits on the Senate's banking and homeland security committees.

As Agriculture secretary she would hold a critical role shaping Trump's farm and rural policies. The federal government's food stamp program, or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), also falls under the purview of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Taxpayers spend roughly $70 billion annually for SNAP benefits to more than 44 million people.

Other names circulated in recent weeks as contenders for the Agriculture secretary post have included former Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue. Also, current Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller, Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback and former Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman were reported to be in the running. There also were early reports several farm leaders from Vice President-elect Mike Pence's state of Indiana were under consideration.

Heitkamp, who represents a state where more than three-fourths of the land is engaged in production agriculture, helped craft and pass the five-year bipartisan farm bill in 2014, which provides a safety net for farmers and ranchers with expanded crop insurance but it did away with the long-time practice of direct payment subsidies to farmers. The bill also reduced spending for the SNAP food assistance program.

She defended a compromise that kept the sugar program in the farm bill despite criticism from the conservative Heritage Foundation and others that the USDA program essentially is indirect subsidies in the form for higher prices paid by consumers. The Red River Valley region of North Dakota and Minnesota ranks as one of the nation's largest producers of beet sugar.

"Opponents of the sugar program would have us do one thing: Unilaterally disarm and surrender our market to foreign producers," Heitkamp said in the Senate chamber during discussion of the farm bill in 2013. At the time, she singled out Mexico's "highly subsidized" sugar policies as unfair.

In July, the lawmaker sided with food manufacturers, grocers and the ag-biotech lobby in backing a bill to create a voluntary genetically modified food labeling standard. The federal legislation pre-empted a stricter genetically modified food labeling law from going into effect in Vermont.

Prior to the Senate, Heitkamp was North Dakota attorney general from 1993 to 2001 and served as the Great Plains state's elected tax commissioner from 1989 to 1993. While attorney general, Heitkamp was involved in lawsuits against major cigarette makers that ultimately led to the 1998 tobacco litigation settlement agreements and payments to 45 states.

In the late 1990s, Heitkamp was part of a group of 20 state attorneys general that urged Congress to make meatpackers disclose more information about the price they pay for livestock to provide more transparency in the beef market. The multi-state effort resulted in passage of the Livestock Mandatory Reporting Act of 1999, and the law was extended but is currently set to expire in 2020.

Sen. Heitkamp: We spent a lot of time talking about jobs
Sen. Heitkamp: We spent a lot of time talking about jobs

In 2000, Heitkamp as state attorney general sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to try to block imports of cheaper Canadian herbicides. At the time she had claimed some pesticide makers were using a legal loophole to charge American farmers more than they were selling it to competitors such as Canada.

She waged an unsuccessful try for governor in 2000 against Republican John Hoeven, who now is the senior U.S. Senator from North Dakota. Heitkamp considered another run for the governorship in 2016 but ultimately decided against it.

Heitkamp previously served as director of the Dakota Gasification synfuels plant, which is the nation's only commercial-scale coal gasification facility that manufactures natural gas. She also had been in the running as Energy secretary in the Trump administration. However, Perry, who returned to Trump Tower on Monday, is reported to be a leading contender for that post.

USDA's spending in 2017 is projected to total just over $150 billion, with 83 percent of the amount going for mandatory programs such as crop insurance, SNAP food assistance programs, research, as well as farm commodity and trade programs.

In Trump's 2011 book, Time To Get Tough, he wrote: "When half of food stamp recipients have been on the dole for nearly a decade, something is clearly wrong, and some of it has to do with fraud."

Trump might find some support in the Republican-led Congress if he looks to reform the SNAP program, including adding requirements for public assistance. There have been attempts in recent years to reduce funding for the program and add federal requirements such as drug testing for SNAP recipients.

In 2017, USDA budget documents show there will be 94 overseas Foreign Agricultural Services locations operating, including one in Cuba. About $197 million has been allocated for FAS programs, although the exact amount spent for Cuba is not disclosed.Trump has been critical of the Obama administration's restored diplomatic ties to Cuba and threatened he may reverse the move.