U.S. Sen. Roger Marshall is eager to build relationships with Democrats who share responsibility for shaping policies that impact farmers, Nov. 3, 2020 | Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector

WASHINGTON — Republican U.S. Sen. Roger Marshall is vowing he’ll rely on the relationships he’s built with Democratic colleagues and the Biden administration to advance Kansas farming interests in his coveted new post on the Senate Agriculture Committee.

That’s in stark contrast to the Kansas freshman’s recent history as an outspoken conservative who opposed the impeachment of President Donald Trump, challenged the Arizona election results and pushed back against early Biden administration policies.

But Marshall, who served in the House for four years before his 2020 election to the Senate, says agriculture policy is one area where lawmakers from opposing parties can work together. In an interview with States Newsroom, he cited his past collaborations with Democrats and praised President Joe Biden’s selection of Iowa’s Tom Vilsack as secretary of agriculture.

“Relationships are where the opportunity is,” Marshall said. “That’s where the rubber meets the road.”

That’s also political reality now, with Democrats and Republicans in a 50-50 partisan split in the chamber. Democrats have control of the body, because Vice President Kamala Harris can cast a tie-breaking vote.

As a result of a Senate power-sharing agreement, the Agriculture Committee, like others in the Senate, is divided evenly among parties, with U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Lansing) serving as the chair.

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In Roberts’ shadow

Marshall’s success in landing a spot on the Agriculture Committee was crucial both to the senator politically and to his state’s farmers economically.

There are no spots reserved for Kansas on the 22-member panel, but farmers and agricultural groups in Kansas have pushed to ensure that the state is represented on the agricultural committees of both the House and Senate.

The pressure on Marshall to join the panel especially was high considering who he was replacing: longtime Republican Sen. Pat Roberts, who led the committee before leaving Congress this year. Roberts endorsed Marshall in last year’s GOP primary.

Roberts is “the face that was on Mount Rushmore, at least as far as Kansas agriculture is concerned,” said Ryan Flickner, the senior director of advocacy for the Kansas Farm Bureau.

“He was the only person in history that had the privilege to chair both the House and Senate ag committees. So, when you lose somebody like that, there are certainly some shoes to fill.”

The Farm Bureau and other agriculture groups backed Marshall’s Senate bid, in part because of Marshall’s agricultural background. He grew up on a family farm and served for four years on the House Agriculture Committee.

“Marshall is a freshman senator. More than anything, [we hope] he could start building some alliances and just some friendships to get other folks from different parts of the nation to understand what Kansas agriculture is,” Flickner said. “Agriculture typically isn’t partisan, but it does become more regional.”

He also understands the importance of representing Kansas farm interests in Congress. Marshall in 2016 defeated former Rep. Tim Huelskamp in a bitter Republican primary, promising he would reclaim a seat on the House Agriculture Committee.

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Kansas gifts

Marshall told States Newsroom he first met Stabenow at a farm bill hearing in Manhattan, Kansas, four years ago. Roberts held the hearing there while he was chair of the Agriculture Committee. Roberts introduced Marshall to Stabenow, and Marshall’s wife picked out some gifts (Kansas State memorabilia) for Stabenow’s grandchildren.

Marshall has worked with other Democrats on the Senate Agriculture Committee, as well.

He met with Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota on a trip to learn about sugar beet crops, made memorable because he flew around Minnesota and North Dakota in a 1963 Beech Bonanza, a six-seat, single-engine airplane.

Marshall said he has also become friends with Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey and Sen. Ben Ray Luján of New Mexico.

“I look for what we have in common,” Marshall said. “Trade is important to every one of these people on the ag committee, whether they’re Democrat or Republican. When it comes to biofuels, gosh, they grow a lot of corn there in Minnesota as well as in Michigan.”

“Any new regulations that hurt Kansas farmers, chances are, they’re going to hurt farmers from those states, as well,” he added.

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Impeachment, Capitol attack

Marshall’s conciliatory approach on agriculture, though, differs greatly from some of his early actions as a senator.

Marshall was one of just six senators who objected to certifying Arizona’s electoral votes for President Joe Biden, even after rioters attacked police and swarmed through the Capitol to try to stop the count.

Republicans began making allegations of fraud regarding Maricopa County, Ariz., within days of the Nov. 3 election, as President Donald Trump and many of his supporters began spreading false and baseless claims about rigging and vote switching. Multiple lawsuits have failed to produce any evidence of fraud.

Marshall condemned the “rioters, vandals and trespassers” who attacked the seat of government, but said he was concerned about the ways governors, election officials and “activist courts” carried out the election in other states.

Marshall voted against convicting Trump in an impeachment trial for instigating the Jan. 6 Capitol attacks.

He has also objected to Biden’s move to rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement and otherwise curb greenhouse gas pollution. He pushed back on the president’s goal of increasing the federal minimum wage.

And Marshall, who previously worked as an obstetrician and gynecologist, opposes the confirmation of California’s Xavier Becerra as Biden’s Health and Human Services secretary because of Becerra’s lack of medical experience and his support for abortion rights.

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But Kansas’ new senator said he still hoped to find common ground with Biden administration officials on agriculture issues.

He is especially upbeat about Vilsack, a former Iowa governor who served as USDA secretary for eight years during the Obama administration. During the Trump administration, Vilsack worked as the president and CEO of the U.S. Dairy Export Council. Marshall met Vilsack during that time.

Marshall said he “respects” Vilsack’s experience, especially because Iowa’s agriculture industry is similar to that of Kansas.

“I don’t have to teach him that, in the same year, Kansas can have a drought and a flood and maybe a freeze as well,” Marshall said.

“By the way,” Marshall added, “the new secretary of agriculture is from Iowa, so he’s going to hear it from his farmers if he allows his office to become a climate change office rather than the USDA.”

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Trade negotiations

Marshall also is supportive of Katherine Tai, Biden’s nominee to become the U.S. trade representative. Marshall met her when, as a new member of the U.S. House, he was involved with the negotiations over the U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade agreement with the Trump administration.

Tai was deeply involved with those talks as chief trade counsel for the Democratic-controlled House Ways and Means Committee. “She’s someone I know I can work with,” Marshall said.

Marshall’s top priorities on agriculture include increasing trade, cutting back regulations, preserving crop insurance, making sure synthetic meat is not labeled as real meat, increasing immigration for agriculture, promoting biofuels and expanding the deployment of rural broadband.

He also enthusiastically backs the move to bring most of the employees for two federal agricultural research agencies — the National Institute of Food and Agriculture and the Economic Research Service — to the Kansas City area.

Many career employees for those agencies quit or found new jobs in the Washington, D.C., area rather than locating to the Kansas City area. More than a third of the jobs in both agencies were vacant at the end of January, according to the USDA.

Between the two agencies, there were 220 vacancies in the Kansas City area as of the end of January, a USDA spokesperson said Friday.

But Marshall said the hiring pace has been “way ahead of schedule” considering that the agencies have been trying to bring people on during the COVID-19 pandemic. He said the move would eventually save federal taxpayers money, because the cost of living is lower in the Kansas City region than in Washington.

Plus, he said, the researchers will be in the middle of a “animal health corridor” between Kansas State University in Manhattan and the University of Missouri in Columbia. “It’s great for agriculture, and it’s certainly amazing for Kansas,” he said.

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