Politics & Government

Senate confirms Alexander Acosta as labor secretary

The Senate voted to confirm Alexander Acosta as labor secretary Thursday, elevating the Florida law school dean and former U.S. attorney for Florida’s southern district to fill one of the last of President Donald Trump’s Cabinet-level vacancies.

The 60-38 vote largely fell along party lines, though eight Democrats – including Sens. Bill Nelson of Florida, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Jon Tester of Montana and Catherine Cortez-Masto of Nevada – voted in favor of his confirmation. One independent, Sen. Angus King of Maine, also voted for Acosta’s confirmation.

Acosta, a Miami native, is the only Hispanic to join Trump’s Cabinet.

“Acosta’s leadership at the Labor Department will serve as a much-needed change from what we saw under the previous administration,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

That’s what bothers critics about Acosta, currently the dean at Florida International University’s law school. He drew the ire of labor unions during his confirmation process and faced controversy over a deal his office approved while he was Miami’s U.S. attorney.

Though at first unions were favorably disposed to the former public servant, several came to criticize his responses during his Senate confirmation hearing as insufficient proof that he would support workers. The AFL-CIO, which initially praised Acosta as Trump’s pick, expressed “serious questions and doubts.” The left-leaning Economic Policy Institute asserted, “There is no evidence that Acosta will be a strong advocate for workers.”

Democrats also questioned some of Acosta’s actions while in public service.

Among those opposing his nomination was Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. She criticized the then-U.S. attorney’s role in approving a “non-prosecution agreement” in 2007 with Palm Beach financier Jeffrey Epstein when he was charged with sex trafficking.

Epstein, who police found had solicited dozens of girls to perform sexual acts in his Florida mansions for several years, pleaded guilty to one state charge of soliciting minors for prostitution, paid damages to scores of victims and had to register as a sex offender.

In a deal with Acosta’s office, Epstein avoided any federal charges and spent a little over a year in prison.

In his confirmation hearing, Acosta defended the deal with Epstein as the best option for prosecutors based on the strength of the case.

“At the end of the day, based on the evidence, professionals within the prosecutor’s office decide that a plea that guarantees that someone goes to jail, that guarantees that someone register generally and that guarantees other outcomes is a good thing,” he said.

Trump nominated Acosta, 48, in February after the initial Labor Department choice, fast-food executive Andrew Puzder, withdrew following several controversies. Puzder admitted he had hired a maid not authorized to work in this country, causing key Republicans to waver in their support.

Several labor unions wound up stridently opposing Puzder’s nomination. They pointed to his record of opposing labor regulations, such as mandatory rest periods and minimum wage increases, while helming Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s restaurants.

Opposition to Acosta’s nomination was more measured, though that was not enough to sway most Democrats. All 11 Democrats on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee voted against sending Acosta’s nomination to the full chamber, though Sen. Patty Murray of Washington state, the top Democrat on the committee, acknowledged, “I’m glad this is not Andrew Puzder,” before voting.

During Acosta’s confirmation hearing in March, several Democratic senators asked him about his stance on Obama-era labor regulations, including the former president’s expansion of overtime pay, and his position on increasing the minimum wage.

Though Acosta said in his hearing that he would support increasing the federal threshold to qualify for overtime pay, he declined to commit to defending other regulations from the last administration, including one that would require brokers to prioritize clients’ interests when saving for retirement.

Republicans praised Acosta’s past record of public service and his perspective as the son of Cuban-American immigrants. They touted his selection as an opportunity for the Trump administration to improve job growth by lifting regulations at the Labor Department.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., described Acosta as “a brilliant legal mind, someone with deep knowledge of labor issues and a proven leader” when introducing him at his confirmation hearing.

On the Senate floor before Acosta was confirmed Thursday, Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., similarly praised Trump’s nominee as “fortunate,” saying Acosta would exercise “good judgment to re-evaluate labor policies that make it much harder to create jobs and find jobs.”

Acosta had previously been confirmed by the Senate three times for other positions in the Justice and Labor departments.

He is expected to resign from his job as law school dean after being confirmed. He is also expected to step down from the board of U.S. Century Bank, where he has been chairman since 2013.

Elizabeth Koh: 202-383-6040, @elizabethrkoh