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Veneman expected to keep ag secretary job while longer

Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman appears set to keep her job a while longer. Although reports were Veneman might be out because of dissatisfaction with her handling of Canadian beef imports, sources say she will stay on at least through the start of a new administration.

Observers say the president appears to be happy with his cabinet and has asked that members dispense with the mass submission of resignations that usually occurs after the election. Those who plan to leave voluntarily have been asked to let White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card know.

If anyone should be rewarded for her efforts to re-elect the president, it's Veneman. The secretary logged thousands of miles, making thinly disguised campaign speeches. The USDA press office went into overdrive before Nov. 2, issuing dozens of news releases about new funding for numerous programs in key states.

Press office computers appeared to be programmed to paste the words “The Bush administration is committed” into the second paragraph of most releases, including one distributed Nov. 1 about watersheds in Ohio and West Virginia being eligible for a new conservation program.

Most rumors about imminent departures have centered around Secretary of State Colin Powell, who has been on the short end of numerous disputes within the administration's foreign policy team.

But the only cabinet member who may be leaving now is Attorney General John Ashcroft who has told friends that he is worn out with fighting the domestic war on terrorism since the 9/11 attacks. Ashcroft was hospitalized for gall bladder surgery this year.

Observers are also speculating on Sen. Thad Cochran's replacement as chairman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture and Forestry when the Mississippi senator becomes chairman of the Appropriations Committee.

Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts is next highest in seniority, but Roberts wants to remain chairman of the Intelligence Committee. If he can persuade Senate Republican leaders to let him keep that post, the Ag Committee chairmanship would go to freshman Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia.

Chambliss could play a key role in helping fend off new attempts to impose tighter payment limits on farm programs when Congress tries to deal with spending cuts in federal programs.

On the House side, Rep. Charlie Stenholm's defeat is expected to make Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., the new ranking Ag Committee member. Like other Democrats — and Republican Sen. Charles Grassley from Iowa — Peterson also favors tighter payment limit regulations.

Peterson has already begun lobbying for a new job for Stenholm — replacing Veneman as agriculture secretary. “If the president would pick him to be ag secretary everybody would win,” said Peterson.

The administration team gave Stenholm some consideration for agriculture secretary following Bush's first victory in 2000, but the nod went to Veneman because of her experience in trade negotiations.

Whether Stenholm could overcome the rancor that has built up during a very hard-fought campaign if Veneman departs is anyone's guess. But stranger things have happened in Washington.

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