URBANDALE — U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue told Iowa farmers Friday to expect a "bumpy ride" as the Trump administration works to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement - but to look for good results in the end.
On his fourth trip to Iowa - the most to any state - Perdue met with veterans, farmers and agriculture officials at a breakfast forum where trade, infrastructure, taxes, regulations, rural broadband, Department of Agriculture appointees and farm bill policies and provisions were on the menu.
On appointees, Perdue said he wants to see Iowa Agriculture Secretary Bill Northey confirmed to a top USDA post "as quickly as possible." But he added that the administration won't meet with Texas Sen. Ted Cruz - who is delaying the confirmation in a dispute over the Renewable Fuel Standard, which he has spoken against - because it has been U.S. policy "not to negotiate with hostage-takers."
NAFTA negotiations with Mexico and Canada got off to a rocky start after President Donald Trump moved into the White House and are slated to resume later this year. Attendees at the breakfast expressed concern that states dependent on exports are worried about a financial "train wreck" if disputes don't get resolved.
"Hang on and don't get overly anxious. I think we'll get there," was the USDA secretary's advice.
"This not going to be a smooth negotiation. I think you already see that," Perdue told a crowd that included U.S. Rep. David Young, a Van Meter Republican. He said Trump is a tough negotiator who wants a "more U.S.-friendly" deal than is in place now.
"I think we will get to a good agreement for American farmers and producers. But again it may be bumpy in the meantime. There may be some speed bumps there that create anxiety. You know farmers don't need a lot to be anxious about in these kind of days of low-commodity prices, so the administration and the president knows how important agricultural trade is," he added. "I'm hopeful, I'm optimistic that we'll get a deal at the end of the day."
During his stop, Perdue was asked about the status of Northey's nomination to be USDA Undersecretary for Farm Production and Conservation, which has been blocked in the Senate by Cruz, R-Texas, in what Perdue described as "an intraparty squabble" over renewable fuels.
Perdue called Northey "an authentic farmer" and an experienced leader whose expertise is needed, while expressing disappointment and frustration with the Senate confirmation process.
"I wish I would have brought my 'Free Bill Northey' t-shirt," Perdue later told a roundtable meeting on agriculture tax and insurance issues he held with a group of Iowa farmers, agribusiness representatives, Gov. Kim Reynolds and Young at a Johnston insurance company headquarters.
Perdue told reporters after the breakfast forum in Urbandale that he expected Sam Clovis would continue to serve within the administration after the White House liaison with the USDA last week withdrew his nomination to be the agency's chief science officer.
"I think Sam made a very selfless, courageous decision when he realized that his situation was being drug into the whole Russia deal, which has gone on way too long," Perdue said. "I think he didn't want the president to be distracted in that way."
Court records this month revealed the Clovis, an Iowan who served as a Trump campaign adviser, encouraged another campaign adviser to meet with Russian interests. That meeting never took place.