After Delay, Panel to Vote on Solis Nomination

Labor nominee Hilda L. Solis spent weeks answering GOP follow-ups.
Labor nominee Hilda L. Solis spent weeks answering GOP follow-ups. (Nikki Kahn - The Washington Post)
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By Michael A. Fletcher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 5, 2009

The nomination of Rep. Hilda L. Solis (D-Calif.) for labor secretary goes to a scheduled Senate committee vote today after a face-off with Republican lawmakers that highlights their disagreements with President Obama's labor policies.

Solis's refusal during her confirmation hearing last month to be pinned down on issues including the Employee Free Choice Act, which she previously co-sponsored in the House, and her view of ergonomic rules lifted during the Bush administration, led to threats from some GOP lawmakers to place a hold on her nomination that could lead to further delays once it was on the Senate floor.

Lawmakers also raised pointed questions about her work with American Rights at Work, a pro-labor group for which Solis serves as an unpaid treasurer. Some lawmakers questioned whether her position on a board that organization officials said meets only annually amounts to a lobbying role, something Solis has disputed.

The lingering questions prompted weeks of correspondence between Solis and GOP members of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee in the weeks following her Jan. 9 hearing, as she provided written answers to the committee members' questions. In the interim, President Obama on Monday appointed longtime Labor Department official Edward C. Hugler to serve as acting secretary.

"This is all about questions and answers," said Anthony Coley, a spokesman for Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), chairman of the committee. "Republicans had questions and follow-up questions, and she answered them."

Senate GOP aides said that Solis's written answers seem to have satisfied Republican lawmakers and that they expect her to be confirmed. Still, the delay of Solis's confirmation is seen by some as an early skirmish in what is expected to be a contentious relationship between Obama's Labor Department and congressional Republicans. As a candidate, Obama was critical of the handling of labor issues by the Bush administration, saying it had a pro-business bias that led it to shirk many regulatory functions. Bush officials have said they sought industry cooperation with Labor Department rules, which they argue led to improved worker safety.

"This is just harassment," Scott Lilly, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, said of the questions raised about Solis. "I haven't seen anything that has been raised that looks like a truly substantive question about whether President Obama should have her serve him as labor secretary."

The holdup in Solis's confirmation has prompted some anxiety among labor leaders, who are eager to see the job filled. "We need a labor secretary," said William Samuel, director of government affairs for the AFL-CIO. "There is a lot going on in the economy."

The wrangling over Solis's nomination comes at a pivotal time for organized labor, which is in its strongest political position in many years, with a president and majorities in both chambers of Congress supportive of many of its top legislative priorities.

Obama has spoken out strongly in favor of many union-backed issues and has said that one of his economic goals is to address some of the imbalances that have caused wages for most Americans to stagnate while top wage earners received sharp pay increases.

"I don't see organized labor as part of the problem," Obama said last week after signing three pro-labor executive orders and appointing a task force to examine issues important to the middle class. "To me, it's part of the solution."

Yesterday, organized labor turned up the pressure on Congress to consider the Employee Free Choice Act, which would make it easier for workers to organize unions. Workers gathered on Capitol Hill to begin delivering petitions with a reported 1.5 million signatures.

Pressure to oppose the measure is intense, as well. "This is the most unifying issue for business right now," said John Engler, president and chief executive of the National Association of Manufacturers.

With the last of Solis's answers submitted last week, Senate staffers said they expected her nomination to proceed to the floor for a full Senate vote shortly after the committee vote. "My sense is she has probably got the support to move on through the Senate," one GOP aide said.

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