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Tenure ending, Bush names Schafer as U.S. ag sec'y

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President George W. Bush selected former North Dakota Gov. Ed Schafer as agriculture secretary on Wednesday amid an overhaul of U.S. farm subsidies and heightened scrutiny of food safety rules.

U.S. President George W. Bush (R) listens as his nominee for new U.S. Agriculture Secretary Edward Schafer speaks to the press in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, October 31, 2007. REUTERS/Jason Reed

“Ed Schafer is the right choice to fill this post,” Bush said at the White House. He would succeed Mike Johanns, who resigned six weeks ago to run for the Senate from Nebraska.

If confirmed by the Senate, Schafer, 61, would take charge of one of the largest federal departments with little more than a year left in the tenure of an unpopular president.

His immediate task would be the final negotiations on the new U.S. farm bill. U.S. subsidies are under attack at home and abroad as wasteful. The Agriculture Department was criticized for moving too slowly in a mammoth beef recall last month.

During eight years as North Dakota governor, Schafer promoted economic growth, cut the state payroll and increased education funding. He was the first Republican governor to win re-election in state history. He supported biofuels and farm exports. In 2000, he returned to private business.

Farm state senators welcomed the nomination and said they wanted to hear Schafer’s views on the farm bill, which is scheduled for debate next week in the Senate. It would create a program to protect farmer income as an alternative to traditional subsidies.

“The question is whether he will have to toe the administration’s line, or whether he will be able to soften their position on issues like sugar and permanent disaster assistance,” said House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson, a Minnesota Democrat.

The White House has threatened to veto the House farm bill on the grounds it includes a tax increase and raises crop subsidy rates. The Senate bill would raise subsidy rates for some crops.

“With Ed’s leadership, we will work with Congress to pass a farm bill that provides farmers with a safety net, protects our lands and the environment, and spends federal tax dollars wisely,” Bush said. Schafer did not comment on farm issues during a brief appearance with Bush.

Schafer would be the first agriculture secretary from the Upper Midwest since Bob Bergland in the Carter era.

Robert Carlson, president of the North Dakota Farmers Union, said Schafer was a political conservative who would embrace the free-market agriculture espoused by Bush.

Schafer has a “good working knowledge” of agriculture from his tenure as governor of a state where farming is the leading industry, said Carlson, although Schafer is a business executive by training. He has a master’s degree in business administration from Denver University.

Schafer was an unexpected nominee in agricultural circles. “Who’s that?” asked one farm lobbyist.