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Buttigieg gets Senate nod to lead Transportation Department

A veteran who served as an intelligence officer for the Navy Reserves, Buttigieg will be among first openly gay Cabinet secretaries

Peter Buttigieg wearing a suit and tie
Buttigieg made a strong showing in the 2020 race for the Democratic presidential nomination. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The U.S. Senate voted 86-13 on Tuesday to confirm former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg to be secretary of Transportation in the Biden administration.

Buttigieg, 39, a veteran who served as an intelligence officer for the Navy Reserves, will be among the first openly gay Cabinet secretaries in U.S. history and the first openly gay person to be confirmed by the Senate to hold a Cabinet-level position, according to the LGBTQ rights group the Human Rights Campaign.

“This confirmation breaks through a barrier that has existed for too long; where LGBTQ identity served as an impediment to nomination or confirmation at the highest level of government,”  said HRC President Alphonso David. “Let this important moment for our movement serve as a reminder to every LGBTQ young person: you too can serve your country in any capacity you earn the qualifications to hold.”

Despite the 13 votes against him, his journey to Senate confirmation proceeded smoothly. The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation approved him last week by a 21-3 vote, with both Committee Chairman Roger Wicker, R-Miss., and incoming Chairman Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., praising him for his experience during his confirmation hearing. 

On Tuesday, Cantwell praised him on the Senate floor.

“In my opinion, he’s a young energetic mayor who is going to help us usher in a new era of transportation,” she said.

[Add unmet congressional mandates to Buttigieg’s plate]

Still, Buttigieg is an anomaly and a lingering sign of partisan strife: Of the other secretaries of Transportation dating back to the Carter administration, only Trump’s nominee, Elaine Chao, received any opposing votes. Six senators voted against her in 2017. Chao is also the wife of Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

Other DOT nominees were confirmed by unanimous votes or, in some cases, voice votes.

The 13 senators who opposed his confirmation were: Sens. Josh Hawley, R-Mo.; Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn.; Marco Rubio, R-Fla.; Tim Scott, R-S.C.; Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala.; Bill Cassidy, R-La.; Roger Marshall, R-Kan.; Rick Scott, R-Fla.; Ted Cruz, R-Texas; Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala.; Bill Hagerty, R-Tenn.; Tom Cotton, R-Ark.; and James Lankford, R-Okla.

As a candidate, detailed plans

Buttigieg will assume the Transportation secretary post as one of the more well-known of Biden’s Cabinet picks, having gained visibility during his long-shot bid for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020. 

During that campaign, he had one of the more detailed infrastructure plans of the Democratic contenders. It would have spent $1 trillion on infrastructure, including $160 billion for transit. He was also one of the few 2020 presidential contenders to outright endorse an eventual shift from using the motor fuel taxes to pay for the Highway Trust Fund to a method based on the number of miles traveled by vehicles. 

His one stumble during the confirmation process came during his hearing, when he signaled he’d be open to raising the gas tax to pay for highways; a spokesman later walked that back, saying a gas tax increase was not on the table.

Still, Sen. Rick Scott of Florida used Buttigieg’s comments as a reason to vote against him, tweeting in part on Tuesday that Buttigieg “is willing to raise the gas tax on the American people to pay for the government’s wasteful spending & and I can’t support his policies that hurt American families & small businesses.” 

Buttigieg will have a full plate: Transit, airlines and other modes of transportation have struggled during the coronavirus pandemic, with ridership plummeting and employees at risk, and Congress faces an October deadline to reauthorize federal highway programs. Last year, Congress extended the current highway law (PL 114-94) for a year.

He will oversee a budget of about $90 billion — including about $22 billion in discretionary dollars — and manage a staff of about 55,000.

Biden’s team has become comfortable enough with Buttigieg that he made multiple cable appearances in the days between his nomination and confirmation; nominees are generally encouraged not to do interviews until after their confirmation in order to avoid gaffes before the key vote. He appeared on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” on Inauguration Day — the day before his Jan. 21 confirmation hearing.

Hours after that hearing, he told MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell that his priority at DOT would be safety. 

“Usually when we think about safety and transportation, of course, we’re thinking about preventing crashes, and that continues to be the core mission of the department,” Buttigieg said. “But now, we’ve been reminded of a whole other element of traveler and worker safety and transportation. That’s preventing the spread of the virus.”

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