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Bennett coup may aid war on crickets

WASHINGTON — The Senate's agriculture focus may shift from farm belt subsidies to attacking Mormon crickets because Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, won chairmanship Tuesday of the Senate Appropriations Committee on Agriculture.

It is a rare position for someone from outside the farm belt and came as something of a surprising consolation prize for Bennett in a shake-up of Appropriations subcommittee chairmen. But it could also be a big win for rural Utah.

It came amid a game of musical chairs among subcommittee chairmen that began when the powerful Appropriations Committee — which each year divides the federal spending pie — created a new Subcommittee on Homeland Security.

Bennett had openly hoped to chair that new subcommittee, but that depended on more senior committee members staying with their previous subcommittee chairmanships.

Instead, Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., who had chaired the agriculture panel, chose to take over the new Homeland Security panel. So Bennett, who had chaired a subcommittee on the legislative branch, chose in turn to take over the agriculture subcommittee.

Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, R-Colo., replaces Bennett on the Legislative Branch Subcommittee, which appropriates funding for Congress itself.

"I'm delighted to bring a Western perspective to the chairmanship of this subcommittee," Bennett said. "I look forward to raising the focus on issues important to my region of the country, as well as continuing the great work done by my friend Sen. Cochran.'

Bennett said he is now in better position to help Utah farmers and ranchers with such things as combating Mormon crickets, which caused $25 million in damage in Utah last year. He said he can also shine a brighter light on agriculture important to Utah, including beef, dairy and specialty crops such as cherries, apples and onions.

"For some time, specialty crops and cattle — all critical to Utah's agricultural industry — have been in the shadow of farm-related legislation. I look forward to renewed attention to these issues,' Bennett said.

Bennett, who also serves as chairman of the Joint Economic Committee and is considered among the Senate experts on high-tech issues, said he also hopes to use his new position to help make rural America more high tech.

"Right now rural residents face a very real digital divide; too many are without access to important technologies. From the expansion of telemedicine, enhanced educational opportunities and more efficient agricultural operations, improving our nation's rural infrastructure will improve our citizen's quality of life,' he said.