South Carolina Republican Sen. Tim Scott might be the decisive vote in determining whether fast-food executive Andrew Puzder becomes the next secretary of labor.
And it could be a tough vote for Scott, a first-term senator. While Democrats assail Puzder’s record, noting that he has faced racial discrimination lawsuits over his Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s restaurants, the issue of discrimination has long been an important one for Scott, the Senate’s only black Republican.
President Donald Trump is in danger of losing his first Cabinet nominee in the U.S. Senate, with Scott among a handful of Republicans who so far have refused to line up behind Puzder.
Four of them – Scott, Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Johnny Isakson of Georgia – sit on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, which is scheduled to grill Puzder on Thursday for the first time.
Isakson has sent conflicting signals on how he will vote. His spokeswoman, Amanda Maddox, said the senator wouldn’t take a position until after the hearing, but last week he called Puzder “an outstanding appointee” who would be a great leader of the U.S. Department of Labor, even though he said that questions remained about the nominee’s hiring of a housekeeper who was in the U.S. illegally.
When the panel voted 12-11 to advance the nomination of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, Collins and Murkowski sided with the majority. They then voted against DeVos in the final confirmation vote.
Should they do that again, Scott could end up deciding whether the committee will sign off on Puzder. The nomination has to pass out of committee before the Senate has a chance to vote next month on one of the president’s most controversial appointments.
While Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and other top Republicans are rallying behind Puzder, Washington state Sen. Patty Murray, the top Democrat on the panel, said Puzder should withdraw to avoid a bruising embarrassment Thursday.
“I think a lot is going to come out, and every senator is going to have ask themselves: ‘Is this the kind of person I want to refer my constituent to as overseeing the workplace policies in this country?’ ” Murray said in an interview. “My message to Sen. Scott, or any senator at this point, is to really look at this man’s record and the policies he has promoted in the workplace.”
In a brief interview at the Capitol on Tuesday afternoon, Scott said: “I will make my decision known after Thursday.”
Asked about his biggest concerns, he said: “All of the ones that we’ve heard publicly are the ones that I’m most concerned with, but ultimately I want to hear what he has to say.”
Scott’s spokeswoman, Michele Exner, said the senator regarded the hearing “as an important process.” She said his common practice, with few exceptions, had been to wait until after a confirmation hearing before deciding how to vote.
Murray said that one of the main points Democrats would hammer home Thursday was that Trump had campaigned as a candidate who would fight for workers but now wanted a labor secretary who had done a poor job advocating for his own employees.
Democrats say Puzder should be rejected because of a long history of opposing an increase in the minimum wage and an overtime rule to expand eligibility for workers. They’ve also highlighted the cases of Puzder employees who have sued his companies, alleging poor working conditions, sexual harassment, civil rights abuses and gender and racial discrimination.
In a speech on the Senate floor last year, Scott recounted his own experiences with discrimination, saying he had felt “the anger, frustration, sadness and humiliation that comes with feeling like you’re being targeted for nothing more than being yourself.” He said officers at the Capitol had asked to see his identification badge even as he wore the official lapel pin that made it clear he was a senator.
“In the course of one year, I’ve been stopped seven times by law enforcement officers,” he said. “Not four, not five, not six, but seven times in one year as an elected official.”
So far, Scott has a perfect 100 percent score in voting for Trump’s Cabinet nominees. That includes backing Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who faced accusations of racism from Democrats. Scott even went to the Senate floor last month to give a long speech defending Sessions, reading tweets from critics who attacked him for siding with the former Alabama Republican senator.
Puzder’s latest troubles came last week after he admitted that he had hired as a housekeeper an immigrant who was in the U.S. illegally and that he’d paid her payroll taxes only after Trump nominated him in December.
On Monday, Murray wrote a letter to Puzder, 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 were withheld.
“Although we expect all nominees to pay appropriate taxes on their employees, these concerns are heightened for the position of secretary of labor given this individual’s role in ensuring fair treatment of all workers,” Murray said in the letter.
While the issue has derailed previous Cabinet nominees, the committee’s chairman, Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, said Puzder should be confirmed, calling him “a respected Tennessee business leader who understands how excessive regulation can destroy jobs and make it harder for family incomes to rise.”
“Since Mr. Puzder reported his mistake and voluntarily corrected it, I do not believe that this should disqualify him from being a Cabinet secretary,” Alexander said in a statement.
As part of the preparations for the hearing, Murray and Alexander arranged for 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. She later retracted the allegations.
Puzder will also face questions about some of his racy ads that feature women in bikinis eating hamburgers, a sore spot with many women and women’s groups.
Murray called the ads offensive and said they raised questions of whether Puzder would prioritize women’s rights in the workplace, adding: “They clearly objectify women.”
The committee will not vote on Thursday. That’s expected to happen sometime after the Senate returns from its President’s Day break on Feb. 27.