WASHINGTON -- President Bush announced the resignation Thursday 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," Bush said Thursday, while announcing that Johanns had resigned as head of the Agriculture Department.
Bush announced Johanns' departure at a Rose Garden ceremony. Deputy agriculture secretary Charles Conner has taken 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 Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel.
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 Sen. Kent Conrad, a North Dakota Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Committee. His remarks were echoed by Democratic Sens. Byron Dorgan of North Dakota, Tim Johnson of South Dakota and Ben Nelson of Nebraska.
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 Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, the committee's chairman.
House agriculture chairman Collin Peterson, D-Minn., said he doesn't think Johanns' departure will make a difference as Congress writes the bill.
"Chuck Conner has been running the show behind the scenes on the USDA's farm bill agenda, so not much will change now that he's been named acting secretary," Peterson said.
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 Sen. John Warner of Virginia decide against seeking re-election in 2008.
After saying goodbye to department employees at a ceremony Thursday, 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.
Already 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 Sen. Bob Kerrey to run.
Kerrey said Thursday he's still considering a bid, and "it's got nothing to do with who else is going to run and everything to do with my personal life."
Incumbent Hagel gave Johanns a hearty endorsement Thursday.
"I don't know of a stronger candidate for the United States Senate, certainly in the field that I see now or anticipate seeing, than Mike Johanns," he said on a conference call with reporters.
Bush earlier this week proposed filling another Cabinet vacancy -- the position of attorney general -- with retired federal judge Michael Mukasey, who was nominated to succeed Alberto Gonzales.
Inside the White House, Bush has seen the departures recently of longtime advisers Karl Rove and Dan Bartlett. Press secretary Tony Snow's last day was Friday.
As agriculture secretary, Johanns has spent much of his time arguing with lawmakers over the farm bill and disaster assistance for farmers who have lost crops because of bad weather.
The administration has criticized a House version of the farm bill, passed this summer, saying it didn't do enough to limit subsidies to wealthy farmers. President Bush and Johanns have said the additional assistance to farmers is unnecessary as farm prices have hit record highs.
Farm groups and lawmakers praised Conner, who began his role as acting secretary Thursday.
Conner, who became deputy agriculture secretary in 2005, is an Indiana native who has worked on farm issues in Washington for over two decades. He was a White House farm adviser and president of the Corn Refiners Association. He also worked on the Senate Agriculture Committee for 12 years, most of that time as staff director.
Conrad, the North Dakota senator, said: "He is somebody who will be respected in the discussions."
Associated Press writer Anna Jo Bratton contributed from Omaha, Neb. to this story.
On the Net:
Johanns' resignation documents: http://tinyurl.com/2n8dc4