A Senate committee narrowly voted Thursday to recommend that the full Senate confirm President Donald Trump’s second choice to head the Labor Department.
The 12-11 vote of the Senate Labor Committee to confirm Alexander Acosta of Miami as labor secretary occurred along party lines, with 12 Republicans approving his nomination and 11 Democrats opposing it.
The closeness of the vote was something of a surprise, as several Democratic senators had signaled support for the dean of Florida International University’s law school.
Sen. Patty Murray of Washington state, the senior Democrat on the panel, said in a statement before the brief committee session that she would vote against Acosta because he’d not expressed a strong willingness to stand up to Trump if confirmed to head the federal agency charged with protecting workers’ rights.
At Acosta’s confirmation hearing last week, Murray repeatedly asked the Miamian whether he would oppose White House policies that did not protect employees. After saying several times that he served at the president’s pleasure, Acosta finally promised to shield workers from harmful administration actions.
“My concerns were only heightened at our hearing, when Mr. Acosta deferred to the president and refused to take a strong stand on critical issues including expanding overtime pay to more workers, fighting for equal pay and advocating investments in job training and other key priorities of the Department of Labor,” Murray said in a statement the day before before the committee vote.
Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, the panel’s chairman, said Acosta’s personal background as the son of Cuban-American immigrants who had to work hard to support their family would help him understand the needs of workers.
“We are fortunate to have a presidential nominee for labor secretary who understands how a good-paying job is critical to helping workers realize the American dream,” Alexander said in a statement.
Trump nominated Acosta, a former member of the National Labor Relations Board, after his first choice, fast-food executive Andrew Puzder, withdrew his name in the wake of multiple controversies, including his admission that he’d hired a maid who was in the country illegally.
At the confirmation hearing, Murray and fellow Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts grilled Acosta on whether he would push back at Trump’s proposed budget cuts of $2.5 billion, or 21 percent, of current funding for the Labor Department. Acosta said he would rely on data to determine whether the agency’s programs were delivering concrete results before determining which cuts to make.
Unlike Puzder, however, Acosta has drawn support from several unions, among them the International Union of Operating Engineers, the Laborers’ International Union of North America and the International Association of Fire Fighters.
Despite the close committee vote, Acosta faces likely Senate confirmation. At least three Republican senators would have to vote against him for him to be defeated, and none have given any sign of opposing him.
Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson, a fellow Floridian who’s known Acosta for years, has expressed support. His vote for Acosta would increase to four the number of opposing Republican senators necessary to derail the nomination.
Acosta’s past record of federal service helps his nomination bid. Besides the National Labor Relations Board, he served as assistant attorney general in the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division and as the top federal prosecutor in South Florida. All three posts required Senate confirmation, and Democratic President Bill Clinton nominated him to one of them.
Acosta, 48, would be the first Hispanic member of Trump’s Cabinet if confirmed. He has a Harvard law degree.
Despite facing an apparent uphill battle to block Acosta, some progressive groups are waging a spirited campaign against him.
Sarita Gupta, executive director of Jobs With Justice in Washington, expressed concern that Acosta, if confirmed, would dismantle key Labor Department regulations in order to benefit big corporations.
“Working people deserve no less than a champion and an advocate at the Department of Labor,” she said in a statement. “We don’t expect Alexander Acosta to be either.”