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Kan. senator no longer top GOP member of ag panel

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) -- Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts is no longer the top Republican on the U.S. Senate Agriculture Committee, but he promised Thursday to remain a strong advocate for farmers, ranchers and rural areas and added that he expects to get another important assignment.

Roberts isn't leaving the Agriculture Committee altogether, just stepping aside as its ranking minority party member after two years in favor of Mississippi's Thad Cochran, who has served longer in the Senate. Roberts said the move was dictated by Cochran's seniority but has his full support.

"I'm going to remain a strong and vocal supporter of agriculture," Roberts told The Associated Press. "Agriculture has always been a top priority. Nothing is ever going to change that."

The Kansas Grain and Feed Association praised Roberts for his work on farm legislation, including a nine-month extension of programs that passed this week and headed off big increases in milk prices. Roberts was chairman of the House Agriculture Committee before being elected to the Senate in 1996, and Tom Tunnell, president of the Grain and Feed Association, said the group looks forward to Roberts continuing to have an important role in farm policy.

Bob Timmons, the president of the Kansas Corn Growers Association, said in a statement that the group is confident Roberts will remain a "vocal and respected member" of the Agriculture Committee.

Roberts said he's also retaining seats on the Finance, and Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committees.

He said he expects to become the ranking Republican on the Senate Rules Committee and sees the position as important to pushing the Senate to be more open in debating issues such as spending and the federal budget deficit. He and other Republicans have complained that the Democratic majority has limited debate and amendments.

"You open up the process and let the Senate be the Senate," Roberts said.

Roberts said Cochran sought the position as the Agriculture Committee's ranking Republican because he was term-limited as the top GOP member of the Appropriations Committee. Cochran was first elected to the Senate in 1978 and served as the Agriculture Committee's chairman from 2003 through to 2005, when Republicans had the majority.