President Barack Obama on Monday officially nominated Justice Department official Thomas Perez to his become secretary of labor, but several Republican lawmakers indicated Perez could face stiff resistance in confirmation hearings on Capitol Hill.
Obama ended weeks of speculation and formally tapped Perez to lead the Department of Labor during a White House ceremony. Perez will become the only Latino in the president's second-term cabinet if he is confirmed. He will replace outgoing Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, who is Mexican-American. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, the only other Latino in the cabinet, is expected to leave his post at the end of the month.
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During the ceremony, Obama said Perez's story as the son of Dominican immigrants who worked to pay his way through college "reminds us of this country's promise," and urged the Senate to "act swiftly" to confirm him.
"Tom's knowledge and experience will make him an outstanding secretary of labor. And there's plenty of work to do," the president said during the East Room event, calling Perez an "advocate" for middle-class and immigrant families.
Perez's nomination earned applause from labor unions, which praised his support for worker protections, as well as from Latino advocacy groups, which urged Obama to select more Latino candidates to fill the handful of vacant cabinet positions.
"Thomas Perez is an eminently qualified public servant who has the professional experience and compelling personal story to serve at the highest levels of the administration," said Janet Murguía, President and CEO of the National Council of La Raza. "We hope that President Obama will continue to add diversity to his cabinet and consider qualified Latinos for additional cabinet positions as well as other senior-level presidential appointments."
But Perez could encounter a tough grilling from Republican senators, who have painted him as too liberal on issues regarding immigration, voting rights and labor laws.
Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) vowed he would block Perez's nomination until the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) answers more questions about a lawsuit filed against Louisiana that alleges state agencies violated federal law by not providing voter registration forms to low-income voters. As head of the Justice Department's civil rights division since October 2009, Perez oversaw the Louisiana case.
Vitter also questioned Perez's role in the controversial New Black Panther voter intimidation case. Under the Bush administration, the Justice Department brought charges against three group members and the organization itself, claiming that they intimidated voters at a Philadelphia polling place during the 2008 presidential election. But after the Obama administration took office, charges against three of the four defendants were dismissed, a move that provoked the ire of conservatives.
"Thomas Perez's record should be met with great suspicion by my colleagues for his spotty work related to the New Black Panther case, but Louisianians most certainly should have cause for concern about this nomination," said Vitter said in a statement, alleging that Perez has acted in a partisan manner in the past.
An independent inspector general report says that the department acted properly in narrowing the charges. The report found that Perez gave "incomplete testimony" to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, when he said that political appointees were not involved in the process to dismiss the charges.
The report found that Perez did not "intentionally" mislead the commission, but it said that he should have sought more details as a department witness. At least two political appointees were involved in the decision to dismiss.
Other GOP senators have echoed Vitter's criticism. Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), the senior Republican on the judiciary committee, said in a statement that Perez was "woefully unprepared to answer questions in front of the Civil Rights Commission on a subject matter he told the Inspector General he expected questions on."
At least one other GOP senator has taken issue with Perez's positions on immigration reform. In the Justice Department, he helped lead a racial discrimination lawsuit against Joe Arpaio, the sheriff of Arizona's Maricopa County, and he launched an investigation into an Alabama immigration law, examining whether it negatively affected immigrant-worker pay and school participation.
As labor secretary, he could play an influential role in the ongoing debate over comprehensive immigration reform as Congress considers a bill that seeks to tackle the future flow of immigrant workers and could potentially include a temporary worker program.
"The top priority of the Secretary of Labor should be to create jobs and higher wages for American workers. But Mr. Perez has aggressively sought ways to allow the hiring of more illegal workers," Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), a member of the Judiciary committee and a staunch immigration hawk, said in a statement. "It is plain that if the policies of Mr. Perez were to be enacted, jobs for Americans would be harder to come by and wages lower."
Perez's nomination came on the same day as a report commissioned by the Republican National Committee urged GOPers to take a less strident tone on the issue of immigration reform. But some senators, such as Sessions, appear committed to bringing up the issue during the confirmation process.
"We need a Secretary of Labor who fights to create jobs for American workers, not one that undermines legal work requirements," he said. "It is plain that if the policies of Mr. Perez were to be enacted, jobs for Americans would be harder to come by and wages lower. He is the wrong man for this job."