Democratic senators and their allies in organized labor appear poised to give President Donald Trump’s second choice to head the Labor Department a pass, reserving their energy for other fights with a Republican-led Congress.
While Alexander Acosta will certainly face grilling over a plea deal he approved as U.S. attorney for a billionaire in a child sex case, Democrats are signaling a relatively easy confirmation hearing Wednesday – especially compared with what was in store for Trump's first nominee, California fast food executive Andy Puzder.
“He’s definitely a step forward in terms of his qualifications for the job by comparison with Puzder,” Lynn Rhinehart, general counsel for the AFL-CIO in Washington, told McClatchy. "We recognize that. But in terms of a formal endorsement, we need to wait for the hearing and hear about how he’s going to protect workers’ rights, health and safety.
Other unions went further, saying they support Acosta. The unions include the International Association of Firefighters, the International Union of Operating Engineers, and the Laborers' International Union of North America.
Those endorsements carry weight with some of the Senate Democrats who will participate in the confirmation hearing.
Puzder, who lacked government experience and had a history of clashing with workers, withdrew after heavy criticism related in part to his employment of an undocumented immigrant as a maid.
By contrast, several Democrats on the Senate Labor Committee already have responded positively to the selection of Acosta, who has held three federal posts for which he gained Senate confirmation.
While a promising path to full Senate confirmation awaits Acosta, the soft-spoken dean of the Florida International University Law School faces a likely bump in the road.
Some Democratic senators on the Labor Committee will ask Acosta about a controversial 2007 plea deal he approved as the top federal prosecutor in South Florida.
While serving as U.S. attorney in Miami, Acosta accepted the deal that allowed Palm Beach billionaire Jeffrey Epstein to serve just one year in county prison over child sex charges.
A decade later, that decision still doesn’t sit well with Erica Payne, a former Democratic Party fundraiser. The Raleigh, N.C., native founded The Agenda Project, a New York-based progressive group.
“A sick human being is free because of Alex Acosta,” Payne said Monday. “His associates are protected from prosecution. And now President Trump wants to reward Acosta with a Cabinet seat.”
In a letter to the Justice Department last week, Sen. Patty Murray of Washington state, senior Democrat on the labor panel, zeroed in on the Epstein deal in requesting records from Acosta’s tenure as federal prosecutor.
Murray said in an earlier statement that she has broader concerns about Acosta.
“As I continue to review Mr. Acosta’s record, I have serious concerns about his ability to be a strong champion for workers’ basic rights, including critical anti-discrimination protections, and to stand up to political pressure,” Murray said.
In an effort to win her vote, Acosta met with Murray on March 9. He has also huddled with other Democrat senators on the committee, among them 2016 vice presidential nominee Tim Kaine of Virginia and Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire.
The previous federal post Acosta held that is most directly tied to his current nomination was a brief stint as a member of the National Labor Relations Board.
Wilma Liebman, a Democratic appointee of President Bill Clinton to the NLRB, said Acosta and she worked closely together during his eight months the board, before he left to take a Justice Department post.
“I found him to be an independent thinker,” Liebman told McClatchy. “He's a very good choice in a Republican administration. He is certainly not anti-government.”
Acosta served on the NLRB for just eight months, from December 2002 to August 2003. While he sided with its two other Republican members in dozens of rulings, Acosta sometimes broke with them and signed onto decisions with Liebman and the board’s other Democrat.
“He was serious about the law,” Rhinehart said. “He didn’t overreach in his decisions.”
Rhinehart added, however, that the American workplace has changed in the nearly 14 years since Acosta left the NLRB.
“We’ve got subcontracting, permatemps, misclassified independent contractors,” she said. “How is he going to ensure worker protections in that fractured workplace?”