By Andrew Ward and Eoin Callan in Washington
President George W. Bush lost another senior member of his administration on Thursday when Mike Johanns resigned as agriculture secretary.
His departure deprives the Bush administration of its chief advocate for reform of trade-distorting agricultural subsidies at a critical moment in the passage of a new farms bill.
Mr Johanns is expected to return to his native Nebraska to compete for the Senate seat held by Chuck Hagel, a Republican critic of the Iraq war who is retiring next year.
The agriculture secretary had launched a broad effort to persuade Capitol Hill to reduce farm subsidies and move towards payment methods more consistent with world trade rules.
The US is facing significant legal challenges at the World Trade Organisation to its farms programmes after losing a landmark case brought by Brazil over cotton subsidies. But so far the administration’s appeals for reform have been largely rejected.
The farms bill passed this summer by the House of Representatives rejected many of Mr Johanns’s reform proposals and largely extended existing farm supports.
There have been some suggestions that the Senate was likely to show more flexibility when it passed its version of the farms bill, due later this month.
But Mr Johanns’s departure will shake confidence that a big change of direction by the US is imminent.
Chuck Connor, the deputy agriculture secretary, was appointed to replace Mr Johanns on an acting basis.
Mr Johanns is the latest senior official to leave the Bush administration since its domestic policymaking power was weakened by the Democratic takeover of Congress in January. But Mr Bush welcomed his expected decision to run for the Nebraska Senate seat, which the Republicans are desperate to retain in next year’s election.
“If it’s Mike’s decision and Nebraska’s choice, he would make an outstanding member of the United States Senate. There is no doubt in my mind,” said Mr Bush.
Mr Hagel’s is one of several vulnerable Republican Senate seats that Democrats are targeting next year as they seek to extend their majorities in the House and Senate. Incumbent Republicans face difficult challenges in at least four states, while retirements in Virginia and Colorado will provide Democrats with additional opportunities to expand their one-seat majority in the Senate next November.