The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee on Wednesday voted along party lines to advance President Joe Biden’s labor secretary nominee Julie Su, sending her nomination to the full body — where it faces an uncertain future.
Every Democrat on the panel voted to advance Su, while every Republican voted against advancing her nomination, meaning that lawmakers in the president’s party could face trouble unless they win over some key holdouts in their conference.
“My hope is that ultimately we’ll be able to find the votes for her to be successful coming out of this committee and then on the Senate floor,” Massachusetts Sen. Ed Markey, a member of the Senate HELP panel, said.
“There’s no question in my mind that no one has ever been nominated to be secretary of labor who is better qualified,” he added.
If confirmed, Su would be the first Asian American cabinet secretary in the Biden administration.
Biden’s nominee has secured support from nearly every Democrat in the closely divided Senate and the largest unions in the country, but in order to be confirmed, she would likely need to win the backing of three key lawmakers: Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., John Tester, D-Mont., and Kyrsten Sinema, I-Ariz. They have all declined to say whether they'd support her nomination.
With California Sen. Dianne Feinstein absent since February, Democrats can’t afford to lose another vote of their 51-seat majority if they want to confirm Su, who was nominated to be deputy secretary of labor by a 50-47 party line vote in 2021.
All three key Senators voted to back Su's confirmation as Deputy Labor Secretary in 2021. She is currently running the department in an acting capacity following Marty Walsh's departure to lead the NHL players' union.
Republicans have pressed Su on her tenure as California’s top labor official, including her handling of unemployment fraud and her support of a law that regulated the gig economy.
"Julie Su has a decades-long record of partisan activism and promoting policies that undermine workers to the benefit of politically connected labor unions," Louisiana Sen. Bill Cassidy, the top Republican member on the panel, said Wednesday. "A qualified Secretary of Labor needs to successfully handle negotiations, manage a department properly, and refrain from partisan activism. I have not seen evidence of Ms. Su’s ability to do any of those three things."
Su faced a grilling from Republican lawmakers at her confirmation hearing last week.
“Let us be honest, as we gather this morning, the debate over Ms. Su really has nothing to do with her qualifications,” Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., said during the hearing. “No one can tell us with a straight face that Ms. Su is unqualified for this position. In fact, she is extremely well qualified.”
“This debate really has everything to do with the fact that Julie Su is a champion of the working class of this country, who will stand up against the forces of corporate greed,” Sanders continued.
Cassidy, during last week's hearing, strongly disagreed with Sanders' assessment, characterizing Su as an activist who lacked competence and a “demonstrated record of successfully concluding labor negotiations.”
“As highly as I think of Ms. Su, as pleasantly as I regard you, I will disagree with Sen. Sanders and to say it with a straight face that I do not think you should be Secretary of Labor,” Cassidy said in his opening remarks. “President Biden promises to have the most pro-union administration in history. At her nomination announcement, Ms. Su responded saying, ‘sign me up for that, I want to help.’”
“The priority should not be whatever it makes it easier to forcibly and coercively unionize workers while undermining the business model that employs them,” Cassidy added.
Su argued her tenure as the second-in-command at the Labor Department under former Secretary Marty Walsh prepared her to mediate negotiations between labor and employers.
“When he announced my nomination for the U.S. Secretary of Labor, the president called me the American dream,” Su said. If confirmed, the daughter of Chinese immigrants would be Biden’s first AAPI Cabinet secretary. “My parents believed it. I benefited from it. And I want to do my part to make sure it is a reality for workers across the nation.”
In his opening remarks, Sanders addressed Senate Republicans’ concerns about the unemployment insurance fraud rate under Su’s tenure as California’s top labor leader.
“I understand that some of my Republican colleagues have expressed concerns about the 11% unemployment insurance fraud rate that occurred in California during the height of the pandemic when Julie Su was California’s secretary of labor,” Sanders said, citing Department of Labor data that tracked unemployment insurance fraud between July 2020 and June 2021.
“Here is what my colleagues conveniently ignore. During that same period, the unemployment insurance fraud rate was 15.4% in Tennessee, 15.3% in Arizona, 14.3% in South Carolina, and over 14% In Massachusetts,” the Vermont senator continued. “All those states have Republican governors and Republican labor secretaries and all of those states experienced higher unemployment insurance fraud rates than California.”
But Cassidy, whose home state of Louisiana saw a 10.3% fraud rate during the same period, said it’s not the fraud but the lack of accountability, citing one case where a rapper illegally siphoned more than $700,000 from California’s unemployment insurance program in 2020.
“Nuke Bizzle was arrested, [pleaded] guilty and ordered to pay $705,000 in restitution after posting a music video bragging about how easy it was to defraud” California,” Cassidy said. “The lyrics include, quote ‘I done got rich off of EDD. Ain't hit no more licks 'cause of EDD. And just last night, I was sellin' Ps. And I just woke up to 300 Gs.’”
“A rapper was not held accountable because of Ms. Su’s oversight, but because he publicly admitted to his crime on a rap video,” Cassidy added.
California officials previously blamed the rushed nature of getting unemployment funds to people during the pandemic and a lack of oversight from the Trump administration for the high rate of fraud. California’s state auditor released a report in January 2021 concluding the state’s unemployment agency failed to act on fraud despite numerous warnings.
One of Republicans’ biggest concerns expressed during the hearing was Su’s lack of experience when it comes to negotiating labor disputes, particularly as hundreds of labor contracts representing millions of Americans will come up next year.
“You haven't had experience negotiating a major deal with trade unions and management, and your leadership of an enterprise resulted in $31 billion of fraudulent payments,” said Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah. “The buck stops at the top, you're the person running [unemployment insurance], you're the one that decided to waive the guardrails $31 billion. The idea of promoting a person who's had that experience to a position of leadership with the entire Department of Labor makes no sense at all.”
”As soon as we knew that there was fraud happening, I shut the front door to that, I made changes to the program,” pushed back Su. “California's unemployment insurance fraud rate, which was different from the medical assistance, was really comparable to what it's been for the high rates that you're talking about in a program that did not have the safeguards in its design.”
Republicans also expressed concerns about Su’s support of AB-5, a California law that aimed to regulate companies that hire massive amounts of gig workers such as Uber, Lyft, and DoorDash.
The law passed in 2019, reclassifying many gig workers as employees in a bid to give them greater protections and benefits, but Californians voted in favor of exempting ride hailing and delivery companies from the requirements in 2020 after the industry spent $200 million on a campaign in favor of the proposition.
Su committed to not imposing similar rules on the federal level, but only, she said, because Congress has that authority and the Labor Department does not.
One lobbying group has launched a campaign called “Stand Against Su” in Tester, Manchin and Sinema’s home states, as well as Republican Sen. Susan Collins’ Maine. The group spent six figures on ads in those states, according to Fox News. Their efforts include billboards and Facebook ads.
The AFL-CIO has pushed heavily for Su, spending six figures on an ad campaign of their own.
AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler told Spectrum News ahead of the hearing that Su is “eminently qualified” to be the next labor secretary.
“This has been her life's work. She’s spent pretty much literally every waking hour of every day thinking about how to improve the lives of working people for decades,” said Shuler. “Whether it's wage theft, misclassification of workers, you speaking up for workers who have no voice, particularly her work with immigrant workers. And we know [with] the famed Thai garment workers case that she took on, she’s just not afraid to take on the big challenges, even when the odds are against her.”
Su rose to notoriety working on one of the most high-profile labor cases in California’s history back in the mid-1990s, when she fought for Thai garment workers who had been previously enslaved in a sweatshop near Los Angeles.