Fast-food executive Andrew Puzder abandoned his bid Wednesday to become the next U.S. secretary of labor, becoming the first of President Donald Trump’s Cabinet nominees to fail.
Puzder’s sudden withdrawal marked a high-profile defeat for Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who’d boasted in January that he would produce enough votes to get every one of the president’s Cabinet nominees approved.
It marked a rare win for Senate Democrats, who had fought hard to oust Puzder. They’d promised a bruising confirmation hearing for him Thursday, ready to portray him as a boss who cared little about his workers at his Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s restaurants.
“I think the American people got one,” said Washington state Sen. Patty Murray, who had led the opposition as the top Democrat on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.
Murray said Puzder lost the confirmation battle “as people started hearing more and more about this nominee” and made their voices heard.
“President Trump campaigned to help workers and this guy was the exact opposite,” she said in an interview. “The message to President Trump is loud and clear: You’re talking about somebody who’s going to run an agency at a time when people are looking for security, for somebody who’s going to protect their rights in the workplace and who’s going to fight for wages for them.”
Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont tweeted that he was happy that Puzder had called it quits, saying that “given his relationship to his employees he wasn’t fit to lead a department responsible for defending workers.”
Puzder went on Twitter to announce his withdrawal: “I’m honored to have been considered and am grateful to all who have supported me.”
“While I won’t be serving in the administration, I fully support the president and his highly qualified team,” Puzder said in a statement provided to The Associated Press.
It’s uncertain whom Trump will pick next for the post, but two names had surfaced before Puzder was chosen: Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who briefly challenged Trump for the GOP presidential nomination, and Victoria Lipnic, a member of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and a former George W. Bush administration official.
Puzder’s withdrawal came as top Senate Republicans argued for the nominee until the very end, even as reports began circulating that up to a dozen GOP senators were uncertain they’d back Puzder.
Four went public with their indecision: Tim Scott of South Carolina, Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Johnny Isakson of Georgia, all members of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.
Scott had told reporters he still wanted the hearing to take place.
“I think we should continue the conversation until all of our questions have been answered,” he said. “We are in the process.”
Isakson had declined to answer questions but said, “I’m going to the hearing tomorrow.”
Earlier, Murray had called on Puzder to withdraw to avoid being embarrassed Thursday.
On Monday, she said Democrats were ready, “a lot is going to come out” and that senators who backed Puzder would be forced to defend his “poor” record as a fast-food executive.
A growing number of Republicans had expressed reservations over Puzder after he admitted last week that he had hired as a housekeeper an immigrant who was in the U.S. illegally and had paid her payroll taxes only after Trump nominated him in December.
Murray then wrote a letter to Puzder on Monday, asking him to release three years of tax returns in advance of Thursday’s hearing and to disclose how many other household employees he and his wife had had in the past 10 years and whether payroll taxes had been withheld.
In advance of the hearing, she and Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander, the committee chairman, had arranged to allow senators to view a nearly 30-year-old episode of “The Oprah Winfrey Show” in which Puzder’s ex-wife, dressed in disguise, accused him of physical abuse. His ex-wife later retracted the allegations.
Democrats also planned to quiz Puzder over the many times he had been sued for alleged discrimination by his employees and to highlight his fast-food ads that showed women in bikinis eating hamburgers.
After falling one vote short last week in their bid to defeat Betsy DeVos as education secretary, Democrats were in a celebratory mood at the Capitol after finally handing Trump and McConnell a defeat.
Proclaiming victory in a speech on the Senate floor shortly after Puzder withdrew, Murray said Americans “spoke up loud and clear that they want a true champion for all workers.”
Franco Ordoñez contributed to this article.