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Bush announces agriculture secretary leaving

President Bush announced Thursday morning in the White House Rose Garden that Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns is stepping down.
Dave Heinemann, Mike Johanns
U.S. Secretary of Agriculture and former Nebraska governor, Mike Johanns, appears set to take a run at the U.S. Senate.Nati Harnik / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

President Bush on Thursday announced that  Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns is leaving the Cabinet to return  to Nebraska, where he is expected to run for the U.S. Senate.

Bush said Johanns "brought focus and energy to the department"  but was "serious about going home and possibly serving the nation  in a different capacity."

Bush announced Johanns' departure at a Rose Garden ceremony. He  said Deputy Agriculture Secretary Charles Conner would take over as  acting secretary.

Several state officials said that Johanns is expected to seek  the Senate seat being vacated at the end of next year by Sen. Chuck  Hagel, R-Neb.

A Johanns entry into the Senate sweepstakes would be welcomed by  Republicans who lost control of the chamber in the 2006 elections  and who also are seeing some key incumbents like Hagel and Sen.  John Warner of Virginia opt against running for re-election.

"He would make an outstanding member of the United States  Senate and there is no doubt in my mind," Bush said of Johanns.

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.

Bush said he wanted to wish Johanns a "warm farewell," saying  he was "not only a decent person, an honest person, but a person  who gets things done."

Johanns said that his decision to "leave this post has not been  an easy one."

"I grew up with farmers and ranchers as my childhood heroes and  my mentors. Representing them in Washington has been a great  privilege," he said.

Bush said that Johanns had come to him and asked for advice  about what course to take. "And my answer to Mike was ... 'I  support you and I encourage you to follow your heart,"' Bush said.

Johanns drew immediate criticism for leaving his post before  Congress finished work on a new farm bill, a goal he had said he  wanted to reach by the end of the year. The politically popular  legislation gives billions in aid to farmers and pays for nutrition  programs. The current version expires Sept. 30.

Former Nebraska congressman Hal Daub, already a candidate for  the Senate seat, said it's unfortunate Johanns decided to quit when  he "could have been instrumental in securing the passage of a  strong farm bill, legislation that is so desperately needed by our  state's farmers, ranchers and agribusiness owners."

And the state Democratic party sent out a news release  criticizing Johanns' early departure. "Unfortunately, the  secretary has turned his back on farmers and ranchers repeatedly,  most recently walking away from a critical farm bill," the release  said.

Republican officials in Nebraska said Johanns would announce his  Senate bid soon. Vicki Powell, Johanns' campaign manager for his  two gubernatorial races, said she expects an announcement "in the  near future."