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US agriculture chief quits; campaign for Senate seen

WASHINGTON - President Bush announced the resignation yesterday of Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns and immediately offered support for his anticipated campaign for a Senate seat from Nebraska.

"If it's Mike's decision and Nebraska's choice, he would make an outstanding member of the United States Senate," President Bush said yesterday, while announcing that Johanns had resigned as head of the Agriculture Department.

Bush announced Johanns's departure at a Rose Garden ceremony. The president said Deputy Agriculture Secretary Charles Conner would take over as acting secretary.

Several state officials said Johanns, a former Republican governor of Nebraska, is expected to seek the Senate seat being vacated at the end of next year by Senator Chuck Hagel, a Republican.

Johanns drew immediate criticism from congressional Democrats for leaving the Agriculture Department in the middle of negotiations on the farm bill. The politically popular legislation gives billions in aid to farmers and pays for nutrition programs. The current version expires Sept. 30.

"For the secretary to walk away in the middle of a farm bill borders on irresponsible," said Senator Kent Conrad, a North Dakota Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Committee. His remarks were echoed by Senators Byron Dorgan of North Dakota and Ben Nelson of Nebraska, both Democrats.

But most members praised his service. "I always found him pleasant to work with and I was very impressed by how involved he was in this farm bill process," said Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa, a Democrat and the committee's chairman.

A Johanns entry into the Senate campaign would be welcomed by Republicans, who lost control of the chamber in the 2006 elections and have seen some key incumbents like Hagel and Senator John Warner of Virginia decide against seeking reelection in 2008.

Republican officials in Nebraska said Johanns would announce his Senate bid soon. Vicki Powell, Johanns's campaign manager for his two gubernatorial races, said she expects an announcement "in the near future."

Johanns told reporters he will make a decision on the Senate race in the next two weeks.

"I'm getting back to Nebraska as quick as I can," he said.

In the race for Hagel's seat are three Republicans - Attorney General Jon Bruning, former congressman Hal Daub, and businessman Pat Flynn. Democrats have been recruiting former senator Bob Kerrey to run.

Bush wished Johanns a "warm farewell," saying the Nebraskan was "not only a decent person, an honest person, but a person who gets things done."

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