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Senate panel advances Su for Labor secretary

Supporters and critics cite Su's California record

Julie Su, the nominee for Labor secretary, was advanced by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee in a party line vote Wednesday.
Julie Su, the nominee for Labor secretary, was advanced by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee in a party line vote Wednesday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee voted along party lines Wednesday to advance Julie Su’s nomination to be Labor secretary, with several senators’ floor votes still in question.  

The committee voted 11-10 to advance Su, who took over as acting secretary last month after Marty Walsh’s departure. Enthusiasm for Su among committee Democrats and Chairman Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., was strong. 

“While we have massive income and wealth inequality, the working families of this country, in the Labor Department, are entitled to have a secretary who’s going to stand up and fight for them,” Sanders said. “I think Julie Su, currently, in her role in California and throughout her life has made it clear she’s prepared to stand up for working families.”

Republicans have been firm in their opposition to Su. They criticized her tenure as California’s Labor secretary, blaming her for fraud in the state’s pandemic unemployment program that state officials last year pegged at $20 billion, though outside experts said it could be more than $30 billion. 

Committee Republicans also tried to link Su to a 2019 California law that made it more difficult for employers to classify workers as independent contractors, rather than employees. They used Su’s April 20 confirmation hearing to question whether she had the experience needed to mediate labor disputes that could pose risks to supply chains or the broader economy.

“A qualified secretary of Labor needs to successfully handle negotiations, be a competent manager of a department and refrain from partisan activism,” ranking member Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., said Wednesday. “I’ve not seen evidence of Ms. Su’s ability to do any of these three.”

Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Jon Tester of Montana, along with independent Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, are thought to be the votes to watch on Su’s confirmation. All three supported 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. Asked this month whether he had concerns, Tester said, “Not right now.”

Democrats and the independents that caucus with them control the Senate, 51-49. But medical absences leave them little room for defectors on confirmation votes.

President Joe Biden’s nomination of Su in February kicked off a flurry of lobbying activity, according to first-quarter filings. At least 23 companies and interest groups lobbied on the nomination last quarter, including 10 that publicly oppose Su and nine that support her. 

Groups opposing Su, including the National Restaurant Association and the National Federation of Independent Businesses, reported spending at least $3.4 million on lobbying in the first quarter of this year on the nomination and other policy issues. Other groups that publicly oppose Su include the American Trucking Associations, the International Franchise Association, the American Hotel and Lodging Association and the Flex Association, a group that lobbies on behalf of ride-share apps. 

Unions and civil rights groups have come to Su’s defense, disclosing about $2.1 million on first-quarter lobbying spending. Supporters include the Service Employees International Union, American Federation of Government Employees, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, and the Society for Human Resource Management. The AFL-CIO separately this month announced a six-figure ad buy in support of Su, set to air in states where moderate Senate Democrats would be up for reelection next cycle.

Su, the daughter of Chinese immigrants, also received early endorsements from the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus and the Congressional Black Caucus. She  joined the public sector in 2011 as California Labor commissioner after 17 years as a civil rights lawyer, and later became the state’s Labor secretary.

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