Confirmation battle for Biden labor secretary pick heats up, complicated by Democrats

Julie Su faces a confirmation hearing Thursday.

April 20, 2023, 11:54 AM

Opposition to Julie Su as President Joe Biden's pick to be his next labor secretary, and the reluctance of a few moderate Democrats to back her, has put her nomination in doubt as she faced a confirmation hearing Thursday.

While Democrats defended Su, as was widely expected, Republican senators grilled her, questioning her previous remarks about corporations, systemic racism and her oversight of the disbursement of unemployment benefits across the state during the pandemic -- a process they say was marked by fraud.

"Do you still believe that corporations are just insulation to shield individuals like myself?" Sen. Markwayne Mullin, R-Okla., asked after reading a Seattle Journal for Social Justice paper bearing Su's byline stating that "the very definition of a corporation as an entity that is created to permit maximum income and designed to insulate individuals who will profit from liability."

"Do you believe that American society was built on white privilege and systemic racial subordination, to which you've written also?" he later asked.

Su did not say whether she stood by either statement, saying, "It's a longer conversation."

"If you can't answer, 'Heck, no' on this, Miss Su, then that's a huge problem," Mullin said.

Sen. Mitt Romney, a moderate Republican whose support Democrats often court, dinged Su for seemingly having a closer relationship with unions than with business associations as well as her record as California's top labor official.

"During your last two years at the department, the public calendar shows that you had a standing meeting with unions on a regular basis, but until six weeks ago, you had not met with any business associations. Unions on a regular basis but not business associations," Romney said. "I guess it's really hard to understand ... how we can have any confidence that you'd be seen as an unbiased, neutral arbiter."

Su said she has strong relationships with both unions and business associations, describing herself as "communicative, transparent and really sees that there is tremendous areas of common ground."

Many Democrats defended Su, with Sen. John Hickenlooper, D-Colo., saying he's "made no secret of [his] admiration and appreciation for Julie Su" and noting her "celebrity status" among the lawmakers present for the hearing.

Several touched on Su's upbringing to argue that she can relate to workers.

"She's a proud daughter of immigrants and a native of California, and she knows personally the sacrifices that many working families face just to make ends meet," Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Calif., said in remarks introducing Su, noting her "strong work ethic that led her to take on tough fights for workers."

The White House said on Thursday after Su's hearing that administration officials were "working hard for every vote" and feel "confident" about her confirmation.

"She has a proven track record of working across the aisle sitting down with the business community and organized labor and delivering strong results for the American economy," press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said at a briefing. "That's why Julie was unanimously supported in her confirmation as deputy secretary of labor by all Senate Democrats, and that's why Julie's nomination has been endorsed by a range of business groups."

Still, Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Jon Tester of Montana are holdouts -- and their opposition could derail Su's confirmation vote in the 51-49 Senate.

Her nomination is further put in question by the absence of Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who is sidelined recovering from shingles and unable to vote.

Time is dwindling for the Biden administration and Senate Democratic leaders to persuade Manchin and Tester -- along with independent Sen. Kyrsten Sinema -- to consider approving Su as Biden's choice to replace Marty Walsh.

Walsh left the administration in March in order to head up the National Hockey League Players Association.

PHOTO: President Joe Biden talks about his nomination of Julie Su, right, to serve as the Secretary of Labor during an event in the East Room of the White House in Washington, March 1, 2023.
President Joe Biden talks about his nomination of Julie Su, right, to serve as the Secretary of Labor during an event in the East Room of the White House in Washington, March 1, 2023.
Susan Walsh/AP, FILE

The Los Angeles native was narrowly confirmed on a party-line vote in 2021 to become Walsh's deputy secretary of labor. Tester, Manchin and Sinema, who voted to confirm Su at that time, all now face competitive reelection races in 2024 and appear to be distancing themselves from Biden.

"My vote for her last time was all predicated on Marty," Manchin told Politico last month.

Su, a first-generation Chinese American who would be the only Asian American member of Biden's Cabinet if confirmed, has robust support from most Asian American organizations, immigrant rights advocates and women's groups.

She also has backing from much of organized labor, which has said "well-heeled lobbyists and corporate special interests are spending big to block her confirmation."

"What stands out about Su, beyond her expertise in labor law and policy, is that she believes so deeply in what she does," the AFL-CIO, the nation's main labor federation, said in a statement.

"Prior to her predecessor, it had been decades before workers even had a union member at the helm of the Labor Department," the union added.

PHOTO: Sen. Joe Manchin, left, walks with Sen. Kyrsten Sinema after attending a Democratic policy luncheon, on Nov. 16, 2021, on Capitol Hill in Washington.
Sen. Joe Manchin, left, walks with Sen. Kyrsten Sinema after attending a Democratic policy luncheon, on Nov. 16, 2021, on Capitol Hill in Washington.
Jacquelyn Martin/AP, FILE

Of the 606 nominees Biden has picked for his administration, 511 have been confirmed so far, with 93 nominations pending in the Senate, according to the Washington Post's appointee tracker.

But Su is hardly the first nomination snarl the Biden administration has had in recent months.

Several important judicial nominations have been delayed due to Feinstein's absence from the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Some Democrats have have called on her to resign while Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer and Judiciary chairman Dick Durbin have attempted to replace her on the committee -- a move Senate Republicans have blocked.

Phil Washington withdrew his name as Biden's nominee to head the Federal Aviation Administration after he was unable to shore up Democratic support. Sinema and Tester had expressed reservations.

Also last month, Federal Communications Commission nominee Gigi Sohn withdrew after ​​Manchin announced he would vote against her.