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Labor pick Walsh questioned over energy jobs, wage hike

Republicans at a Senate hearing say the concerns probably won’t derail Marty Walsh’s nomination to be Labor secretary

Labor Secretary nominee Marty Walsh testifies Feb. 4, 2021, before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.
Labor Secretary nominee Marty Walsh testifies Feb. 4, 2021, before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. (Graeme Jennings/Washington Examiner/Pool)

Senate Republicans challenged Boston Mayor Martin Walsh on the Biden administration’s policies over energy and minimum wage hikes, but they acknowledged at a hearing Thursday that their concerns weren’t enough for him to lose support in his bid to become Labor secretary.

Walsh emphasized the Biden administration’s plan to “build back better” after the coronavirus pandemic with new high-technology jobs as he answered questions about the economic recovery from members of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. He also reiterated his support for increasing the minimum wage and worker protections, which were among President Joe Biden’s campaign promises.

“We need to continue to strengthen the American worker,” Walsh said during his confirmation hearing. “People have different opinions of unions, business and corporations, and I see my role as secretary of Labor as bringing different thought processes together to bring greater understanding and support.”

The committee’s newly appointed chairwoman, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., vowed to move on Walsh’s nomination “as quickly as possible” to deal with an economic crash that has disproportionately hit women and communities of color.

“This pandemic has laid bare the painful fact that while our economy might work for the biggest corporations and wealthiest individuals, it doesn’t work for families,” Murray said, arguing that Walsh could help turn that around.

Walsh would be the first union member in decades to serve as Labor secretary, and Republicans such as Sen. Richard M. Burr, R-N.C., urged him to call “balls and strikes” rather than take the side of unions over management. 

“You’ve been a mayor, state representative, union leader — you quite frankly have the experience and the qualifications to be considered for this position,” Burr said, before later challenging Walsh on some Biden decisions like removing the National Labor Relations Board’s general counsel.

Other Republicans on the panel also used their questions to argue that Biden administration policies may harm the economic recovery, even as they suggested Walsh will ultimately be confirmed by the full Senate.

Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., and others challenged Walsh on the administration’s decision to cancel the permit building the Keystone XL pipeline — effectively putting members of Walsh’s own former union out of work.

Walsh argued that those workers will be able to get jobs in a greener economy as the administration works to “build back better.” Cassidy countered that unemployed Keystone workers are facing mortgage payments this month.

“Keystone XL jobs are gone today, actually last week, but jobs you’re describing are in the by-and-by, hopefully within a year, or more likely longer than that,” Cassidy said.

Walsh also faced flak over his support for increasing the minimum wage, with Republicans arguing that would adversely affect businesses in areas with lower costs of living. Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., cited a Congressional Budget Office report that found a wage hike would result in the loss of more than 3 million jobs and net income decline over the short term.

“So increasing the minimum wage actually destroys income and a net loss for America,” Scott said.

Several Democrats on the panel urged Walsh to support specific policies in his role, such as an Occupational Safety and Health Administration rule on coronavirus workplace safety. Walsh leaned on his union background, arguing that the department has a responsibility to protect essential workers such as grocery store clerks.

“We don’t protect those workers, then I don’t have a right to be sitting in that seat” at the Labor Department, Walsh said.

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