Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s decision to put himself on the farm bill conference committee was insurance that one of his policy priorities — and a key issue for his 2020 re-election campaign — would make it to President Donald Trump’s desk this year.
“At a time when farm income is down and growers are struggling, industrial hemp is a bright spot of agriculture’s future,” McConnell said Tuesday morning. “My provision in the Farm Bill will not only legalize domestic hemp, but it will also allow state departments of agriculture to be responsible for its oversight.”
The Senate then acted quickly to vote to adopt the conference report Tuesday afternoon, passing it 87-13. It now heads to the House, which could pass it as early as Wednesday and then send to Trump for his signature.
When at home in Kentucky, McConnell has regularly visited hemp farmers and processing facilities, often stressing to critics that industrial hemp comes from a different plant from marijuana. His leadership role in securing legal status for the potentially lucrative cash crop is sure to come up over and over again.
“My being in the majority leader position is a real advantage to Kentucky. It gives us a chance to kind of punch above our weight,” McConnell said in an interview that aired over the weekend. “This opportunity for Kentucky produces things like the legalization of industrial hemp.”
“I’m in the middle of every discussion on every issue, looking for opportunities to help our state” he said. “I don’t think we ought to prematurely give that up because it only comes along occasionally. We had one other — Alben Barkley back in the 30s.”
Barkley, a Democrat, was the majority leader for about a decade, from the middle of 1937 all the way through World War II.
“This could be big,” McConnell said on WKYT in Lexington. “I don’t want to overstate this. We all know how important tobacco was to Kentucky a few years ago, but there’s excitement about hemp.”
“There’s hemp all over America right now. It’s all imported,” McConnell said. “There’s no reason by American farmers shouldn’t be able to grow this crop.”
The interview came before text of the farm bill conference agreement was released Monday night (which McConnell said on Twitter that he had signed with a hemp pen), but as reported last week, it was clear by the time the interview with the local CBS station was recorded that the conference would go his way.
And McConnell was clearly continuing to record more local interviews about the farm bill and the new hemp program.
The language would enable hemp growers to get access to crop insurance, and as for the regulatory environment, the agreement removes the plants from the controlled substances list, which McConnell said, “moves it out of the Justice Department, over to the Department of Agriculture.”
Kentucky has already run pilot programs, so the commonwealth farmers might have an early leg up over those in some other states.
“I don’t know how big this can become, but I know we’re ahead of everybody else. We’re not afraid of the competition,” McConnell said.
President Donald Trump’s top spokeswoman suggested her boss grew frustrated with outgoing Chief of Staff John Kelly disagreeing with his policies — and sometimes taking disputes public.
“I think he brought a lot of structure to the White House that was needed at the time he came in,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said of his second chief of staff. “That being said, I think the president is looking for somebody who believes in what we’re doing.”
Trump announced Saturday afternoon that the retired Marine Corps general would leave his post at the end of the year, calling him a “great guy” even though they often clashed and had reportedly stopped speaking.
Pressed during a Politico-sponsored forum about whether she believed Kelly was not on board with Trump’s agenda, Sanders brought up times Kelly disagreed with the president.
When senior aides disagree with the commander in chief and his agenda, she said, “they need to do that behind closed doors.” Sanders also noted it is the president’s job to make decisions and “once he’s made them, it’s our job as a staff …. to implement them.”
Vice President Mike Pence’s chief of staff, Nick Ayers, was the frontrunner to take over for Kelly but turned down the president’s offer. Instead, he is leaving the VP’s office to work for a pro-Trump political action committee.
Trump earlier Tuesday said he is “interviewing a lot of … great people for chief of staff.”
Trump is looking for a new chief who has strong political instincts as he gears up for his expected re-election bid, Sanders said. Ayers fit that bill, but the president concluded Kelly does not.
Senior aides reportedly said Ayers was Plan A — and there is no Plan B, and no clear shortlist of candidates to replace Kelly.
Trump has tried to knock down those reports, as he did at the end of a wild border wall funding meeting with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y.
“A lot of people want the job. … And I have some great people. A lot of friends of mine want it,” he said without naming names. “A lot of people that Chuck and Nancy know very well want it. I think people you’d like. ... We’re in no rush.”
Trump promised to pick a new chief in “a week or two — maybe less.” He often has promised personnel moves or policy decisions in the same span, only to delay those decisions for a bevy of reasons.