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Senate supporters rally to Labor nominee Su against GOP critics

Panel schedules April 26 vote on nomination

Julie Su, nominee to serve as secretary of Labor, arrives for her confirmation hearing before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee on Thursday.
Julie Su, nominee to serve as secretary of Labor, arrives for her confirmation hearing before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee on Thursday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Senate supporters of Julie Su, President Joe Biden’s Labor secretary nominee, mounted a defense of her record Thursday against Republican attacks, with several crucial votes still in question. 

Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Chairman Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., accused corporate special interests of attempting to undermine support for Su, who took over as acting Labor secretary in March following Marty Walsh’s departure. 

“This debate really has everything to do with the fact that Julie Su is a champion of the working class of this country who will stand up against the forces of corporate greed,” Sanders said at the nominee’s confirmation hearing. “As we speak, large multinational corporations are spending millions of dollars on ads, sometimes ugly ads, in various parts of this country trying to defeat her nomination. They know what I know, and that is that she is prepared to take on powerful special interests and stand up to the needs of those working people who desperately need defending today.”

At least three groups that publicly oppose Su — the American Trucking Associations, the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors and Associated Builders and Contractors Inc. — reported lobbying on her nomination during the first quarter of this year.

Committee ranking Republican Bill Cassidy of Louisiana also entered into the record 50 letters from business groups opposing Su’s nomination.

The committee is scheduled to vote Su’s nomination on April 26.

Unions and civil rights groups have launched counterefforts in support of Su, including a six-figure ad-buy announced by the AFL-CIO on Wednesday and set to air in states where moderate Senate Democrats would be up for reelection next cycle. At least seven organizations that publicly support Su filed first quarter lobbying disclosures on the nomination.

Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Jon Tester of Montana, along with Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, an independent from Arizona, are thought to be the votes to watch on Su’s confirmation. All three voted in favor of Su in 2021 when the Senate voted 50-47 along party lines to confirm her as deputy Labor secretary. None have said yet how they’ll vote and none are on the committee. Asked whether he had concerns, Tester said Wednesday, “Not right now.”

Committee Republicans grilled Su about her track record as California’s Labor secretary during the pandemic, the state’s controversial independent contractor law and her experience mediating large labor disputes. 

“I do not think that you should be secretary of Labor,” ranking member Cassidy said. “We need a Labor secretary who is fair and unbiased when enforcing the nation’s labor laws, who should be a leader who is responsible, experienced, and skilled, not an activist, with a demonstrated record of competence as an administrator and a demonstrated record of successfully concluding labor negotiations.”

Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, said the level of fraud in California’s pandemic unemployment insurance program should disqualify Su from consideration. State officials last year said $20 billion in unemployment benefits, about 11 percent of the aid distributed, had gone to crooks, though outside analysts estimate the amount could be above $30 billion. 

“Your record there is so severely lacking, I don’t know how in the world it makes sense for the president to nominate you to take over this department,” he said. “To work behind Marty Walsh is one thing, and to learn from him, but you haven’t had experience negotiating a major deal between unions and management, and your leadership of an enterprise resulted in $31 billion of fraudulent payments.”

Sanders defended Su’s implementation of the emergency pandemic relief, saying Congress established it without the usual safeguards to get money to those in need faster. States across the country shared California’s fraud problem, he said. 

“Here is what my colleagues conveniently ignore. During that same period, the unemployment insurance fraud rate was 15.4 percent in Tennessee, 15.3 percent in Arizona, 14.3 percent in South Carolina, and over 14 percent in Massachusetts,” Sanders said. “All of those states had Republican governors and Republican Labor secretaries, and all of those states experienced higher unemployment insurance fraud rates than California.”

Sen. Christopher S. Murphy, D-Conn., also came to Su’s defense, noting that she implemented safeguards for the program that the Trump administration directed other states to replicate. 

“It did not have safeguards in place at the get-go. It was meant to go out quickly because we were facing a massive crisis in which people were out of work through no fault of their own in unprecedented numbers, so it allowed people to self attest that they were eligible,” Su said. 

The program automatically backdated the benefit to when a person applied for unemployment, rather than the date their claim was accepted, Su said. When she realized the level of fraud in the system, she stopped the automatic backdating of the benefit, a change the Trump administration directed other states to make, Su said.

In California, the change prevented an estimated additional $60 billion from making it into the hands of scammers, Su said. 

Contractor rule

Republicans also pressed Su on her involvement in a California law that made it more difficult for employers to classify workers as independent contractors, a designation that allows them to avoid providing benefits and protections owed to employees, such as minimum wage. The 2019 law codified a test established by the California Supreme Court, but was partially overturned by voters through a ballot initiative. 

Cassidy sought assurances from Su that she wouldn’t incorporate the California independent contractor test into federal regulation.

“I will commit with absolute certainty and commitment that I will always have full faith and fidelity to federal law, the law that you pass,” Su said, adding that the independent contractor proposal the Labor Department put forward in October didn’t include the California test and legally couldn’t without a law from Congress. 

Republicans also sparred with Su over whether she had the needed experience in mediating large labor disputes with the potential to disrupt supply chains or the broader economy, as was the case with an averted freight rail worker strike last year. 

Su said she worked closely with Walsh in negotiating the rail workers agreement, adding that she was now working to head off a similar showdown at ports on the West Coast, drawing on relationships she cultivated while working on the state level.  Dockworkers are currently negotiating a new contract. 

“That actually took Congress and the president to step in and to conclude those negotiations,” Cassidy said of the rail workers’ contract negotiation. “Those were not successful.” 

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