WASHINGTON Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns resigned after nearly three years in office on Thursday, clearing the way to run for the U.S. Senate in Nebraska, where he was a popular two-term governor.
President George W. Bush announced the decision by Johanns, the latest in a series of senior officials to depart the administration including Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and Bush's longtime political advisor Karl Rove.
Johanns was expected to announce his candidacy as early as Monday for the seat being vacated by fellow Republican Chuck Hagel after two terms. Analysts say Johanns would be the front-runner of four men seeking the party nomination in the Republican-leaning state.
"If it's Mike's decision and Nebraska's choice, he would make an outstanding member of the United States Senate," said Bush.
Democrats have talked of recruiting Bob Kerrey, a former U.S. senator and Nebraska governor who is now a university president in New York City. Democrats control the Senate, 51-49.
As agriculture secretary, the mild-spoken Johanns pressed U.S. trading partners to remove barriers to U.S. beef erected out of fears of mad cow disease, and to expand farm exports, which account for a quarter of farm income. He took the lead in administration proposals to deny farm subsidies to the wealthiest Americans.
In his resignation letter, Johanns said the U.S. farm sector "is stronger than ever before," with high crop prices and record farm exports.
"I'm going to go back to Nebraska as quick as I can and then we'll kind of take it from there," Johanns said after a farewell ceremony at the Agriculture Department. He said he would announce his plans "sometime pretty soon" and expected to return to Nebraska on Monday.
Democrats in Nebraska, a major grain and cattle-producing state, said Johanns was leaving USDA without completing an important task -- an overhaul of U.S. farm policy this year in the 2007 farm bill, which Congress is still drafting.
Johanns resigned as governor to become agriculture secretary in January 2005. Born in Iowa, Johanns practiced law in western Nebraska before election as mayor of Lincoln, the state capital, in 1991 en route to the governorship in 1998. He once said that for a former farm boy, being agriculture secretary was a dream job.
Deputy Agriculture Secretary Charles Conner was named acting secretary until Bush nominates a permanent replacement.
The Agriculture Department, with 100,000 employees, oversees crop subsidies, national forests, a research network and nutrition programs like school lunch and food stamps.
Ferd Hoefner of the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition said Johanns was the first USDA chief in decades to try to rein in farm payments and to show interest in beginning farmers.
But lawmakers have faulted Johanns for the faltering campaign to create a nationwide animal-tracking system, originally embraced by the administration as a key safeguard against mad cow and other diseases. USDA relies on voluntary participation in the program.
"He has been a clear and open advocate for ethanol within the administration," said Jay Truitt of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association. Truitt said Johanns "was the first to understand" how the explosive growth of the fuel ethanol industry would squeeze livestock and meat producers.
Ethanol now is made mainly from corn (maize), a traditional feed grain for livestock. Researchers and the ethanol industry look toward cellulose, found in grass, crop residue, trees and woody plants, as the next feedstock for ethanol plants.