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When President Joe Biden introduced his pick to become the next Labor Secretary two weeks ago, the mood in the East Room erupted with such a raucous welcome, the President seemed briefly taken aback. “Whoa! I think they like you,” he said with a chuckle on March 1 in the East Room of the White House. “I’m going to close my eyes and pretend you were clapping for me.”
Now, two weeks later and ahead of Deputy Labor Secretary Julie Su’s confirmation hearings to permanently take the top job at Labor—one she is now doing on a stopgap basis—her reception in Washington has cooled slightly. Her hearings will come on the heels of the Senate’s tight confirmation on Wednesday of Eric Garcetti to be ambassador to India, almost two years after Biden first nominated him for the post. Garcetti had faced pushback from some Democrats over how he handled alleged sexual harassment and bullying by one of his former senior aides while he was mayor of Los Angeles.
Su’s headwinds are based firmly in policy, not scandal. While labor unions, immigrant rights groups, and Asian and Pacific Islander communities remain huge fans, the business community she would in part regulate is not. Something of a rock star in the organized labor movement, she has been unflinching in her advocacy for immigrant workers.
But the math is undeniably tough for her in a closely divided Senate. True, the Democrats have 48 votes and three independents who typically join them, but two moderate Democrats from red states are likely on the ballot next year and may be more skittish: Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Jon Tester of Montana.
Manchin is still a Democrat, although on some votes you’d be hard-pressed to know why. Last week, he announced that he would block Biden’s nominee to oversee oil and gas leasing at the Interior Department, despite supporting her previously in votes on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee that he chairs. Manchin also blocked the nomination of a Federal Communications Commission member, and he tried to derail the confirmation of Biden’s pick to lead the Internal Revenue Service. Manchin this month also declined to endorse Biden’s looming re-election bid, adding to the D.C. whispers that he could himself make a run for the gig rather than face a tough re-election bid against incumbent Gov. Jim Justice, who says he is still mulling his entry into the Senate race yet this week while putting his family coal empire up for sale.
Su’s last vote in the Senate came down to a 50-47 outcome, with three Republicans absent. Manchin voted for her then, but a deputy role is one thing and the top gig is quite another. “Julie who?” was his response when asked earlier this month about her new nomination.
A finicky independent streak that runs through several other Senate offices pose a similar threat. Both Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, who left the Democratic Party in December, and Sen. Angus King of Maine, have terms that end next year. Both could hold up a failed Su nomination as evidence of their independence from the Biden White House.
Finally, there’s no guarantee all 100 Senators will be able to make the vote. Sen. John Fetterman of Pennsylvania is undergoing in-patient treatment for depression and Sen. Dianne Feinstein is recovering from a case of shingles at home in California. That leaves Democrats with at best 49 ayes.
Biden has already seen his nominee to lead the Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division fail in the face of K Street opposition and three Democratic defections. Two of the three Senators who voted against David Weil’s bid to lead that part of the department are expected to be on the ballot next year, and no one ever expects Sinema or Manchin to fall in line on testy votes. (The third nay on Weil, Sen. Mark Kelly, survived his re-election bid last year and is safe until 2028.)
It was Biden’s first failed floor vote on a nomination; other nominees had withdrawn in the face of opposition, and the sting caught both Biden and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer by surprise, given neither Senate pro likes to waste time on a foregone conclusion of an embarrassing vote.
So far, the inside game on Su has been far from subtle. The International Franchise Association, which took the driver’s seat in K Street’s effort to tank Weil, already has singled out Su. The California Business and Industrial Alliance is running ads in the D.C. media market, warning that Su “could import California’s failed policies to Washington, D.C.” And Flex, a trade group that represents app-based services like Uber and Lyft, has softened its openness to working with Labor after word of Su’s nomination got out.
And former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, while not opposing Su, had another person—former Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney—in mind for the gig and wasn’t exactly coy about it. Neither have Senate Republicans, who think a difficult hearing could hurt Biden’s chances of keeping the White House come Jan. 21, 2025.
Su’s record of enforcing labor laws and expanding them is seen as hostile to some, especially companies like Lyft and Uber that work in the gig economy. In California, Su played a major role in A.B. 5, which classified some gig workers as employees and hampered businesses’ ability to rely on freelancers. Voters in California approved a follow-up ballot measure that exempted gig employers, and a California court this week upheld it in a victory for the players in the gig economy as well as Big Tech.
Other Su critics have seized on time running California’s labor department during the pandemic. The state fund shelled out more than $11 billion in fake unemployment claims, a record Su blamed on a broken system she inherited.
Finally, Su was instrumental in averting a rail strike in December. The imposed labor agreement forced 115,000 rail workers to accept a contract with zero sick leave or right to strike.
Su’s biography was part of the draw for Biden, who has made inclusion and diversity a hallmark of his hiring. At age 26, the daughter of immigrants successfully represented 70 Thai garment workers in a forced sweatshop near Los Angeles where they often worked 18-hour days. That 1995 case made her a national figure, and her time as a top labor regulator in California earned her the ire of the business community.
If confirmed, Su would be the first Asian American to hold the title of secretary in his Cabinet, although Asian-American Cabinet-rank officials lead the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and the Office of U.S. Trade Representative. Vice President Kamala Harris also is of Asian descent and is in the Cabinet.
But it remains a big if right now, and nothing is on the Senate calendar to consider her nomination.
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