A Senate panel approved the nomination of Thomas Perez to be labor secretary, advancing President Barack Obama’s pick to succeed Hilda Solis as the nation’s top labor-law enforcer to the full U.S. Senate where Republican opposition is building.
The 12-10 party-line vote in the Democratic-led Senate health and labor committee underscored continued Republican resistance to Obama’s second-term cabinet picks, with partisan splits also possible over selections including Hyatt Hotels Corp. heiress Penny Pritzker to be secretary of commerce and Gina McCarthy to head the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Republicans have criticized Perez, a child of Dominican immigrants who would be the only Hispanic in Obama’s second-term Cabinet so far, for what they say are ideological decisions he made as head of the Justice Department’s civil rights division. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky in a floor speech last week said he will oppose Perez, who he said is willing “to bend or ignore the law” in pursuit of “far-left ideology.”
Perez, a former Maryland secretary of labor, has clashed with Republicans over his handling of two whistle-blower lawsuits that the department declined to pursue. A Republican-led House panel has held hearings this month on the legal cases, with Democrats decrying what they said was a partisan effort to derail Perez’s selection.
Senate Republicans also differed with Perez over the whistle-blower matter and his related role in persuading officials in St. Paul, Minnesota, to drop a Supreme Court case that risked undermining a Justice Department enforcement tool in housing discrimination cases.
Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, the panel’s top Republican, said he opposes Perez because he “orchestrated a quid pro quo arrangement” that left a whistleblower “hanging in the wind” by agreeing to keep the department out of two unrelated whistle-blower cases against St. Paul that might have reaped as much as $200 million for the U.S. Treasury.
Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa, the committee’s Democratic chairman, defended Perez, arguing that he did nothing unethical and offered “unprecedented levels of disclosure” on the cases. He said Perez’s extensive experience in government shows he would be an effective labor secretary.
“He clearly has the management skills to run a large federal agency effectively,” Harkin said. “Perhaps more importantly, Tom Perez knows how to bring people together to make progress on even controversial issues, without burning bridges.”
Senator David Vitter, a Louisiana Republican, has said he will block the confirmation in the full Senate. Unless he drops that threat Perez will need support of 60 senators to end delaying tactics and advance to a final vote. Democrats control 55 of the Senate’s 100 seats.
Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, one of two Hispanic Republican in the chamber, said he’ll vote against Perez.
At the White House, spokesman Jay Carney has said Perez has a long record of aiding poor and middle-class Americans, and that Republicans are politicizing the confirmation.
“There has not been a case made that is not political and partisan against his nomination, and we hope and expect the Senate will move forward,” Carney said last week.
If confirmed to replace Solis, who quit in January, Perez would play a prominent part in pushing Obama’s agenda on issues including an immigration overhaul and raising the minimum wage to $9 an hour from $7.25. Perez, 51, was Maryland’s labor secretary from 2007 to 2009.
In his April testimony, Perez stressed the perspective he’s gained as a first-generation Dominican American. His father, Rafael, was a doctor who earned U.S. citizenship after enlisting in the Army. His mother arrived after her father was named the Dominican Republic’s ambassador to the U.S.
He said his top goal at the Labor Department would be to focus on creating U.S. jobs, and pledged tough enforcement of wage and hour laws. He also sought to reach out to Republicans by stressing his work for George H.W. Bush and Ronald Reagan.
The St. Paul matter involves the city’s Supreme Court appeal of a case that risked striking down the legal support for Justice Department enforcement in lending discrimination cases against financial institutions. The approach used the “disparate impact” analysis, in which statistical evidence can prove bias even without provable intent.
The city agreed to drop the appeal in return for the department declining to join two whistle-blower lawsuits that alleged St. Paul misused federal housing dollars.
Perez testified that St. Paul first raised the possibility of linking the cases. He said he conferred with Justice Department ethics officials and followed their advice before continuing talks. He said officials in the civil division told him the whistle-blower case was weak.
“The value to the U.S. of losing a case is zero,” Perez said.
Dena Iverson, a Justice Department spokeswoman, has said the department negotiated the deal based on “appropriate considerations.”
The Senate is working its way through Obama’s nominees to second-term posts. Last month, the Senate confirmed Sally Jewell, an outdoor-equipment company executive, to become U.S. Interior secretary.
Meanwhile, Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller, a West Virginia Democrat, said he will hold confirmation hearings May 23 for Pritzker, and a May 22 hearing for Anthony Foxx, Obama’s nominee for Transportation secretary. He has yet to set a date for a hearing into the nomination of Tom Wheeler to lead the Federal Communications Commission.