Mark Keenum, veteran staff member for Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran and a major player in the last three farm bill debates, has been nominated for the No. 3 post at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

President Bush named Keenum, a graduate and former assistant professor of economics at Mississippi State University, to fill the post of undersecretary of agriculture for Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services. He would replace J.B. Penn, who resigned last August.

As undersecretary for Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services, Keenum would oversee the operations of the Farm Service Agency, the Foreign Agricultural Service and the Risk Management Agency. He would also serve as executive vice president of the Commodity Credit Corp.

Over the years, Keenum has become known as Cochran's alter ego, often standing in for the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee at farm meetings throughout Mississippi.

He is also considered a farm bill expert, having helped write the last three farm laws in his position as agricultural aide and then chief of staff to Cochran when the latter was chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee.

Keenum, a native of Sunflower County in Mississippi, joined the staff of Sen. Cochran after working as an agricultural economist with the Mississippi Cooperative Extension Service. He was named Cochran's chief of staff in 1998.