The Senate confirmed railroad executive John W. Snow as the 73rd Treasury secretary last night by voice vote after Snow assured balking senators that he would reexamine controversial pension regulations that were proposed last month.
The CSX Corp. chairman will become the leader of President Bush's economic team at a time of nearly stagnant economic growth, a rising federal budget deficit and the threat of war. Snow also must sell a $674 billion proposal for the economy that was formulated by a White House economic team that no longer exists.
Before Snow could get to those challenges, he had to deal with last-minute, unexpected questions about a 15-year-old child-support dispute, CSX corporate conduct and pension regulations that he would have to implement. Snow, a business leader with considerable experience in policymaking circles, has begun to get a taste of the scrutiny that high-level officials can expect in Washington.
The biggest impediment to his confirmation was cleared away last evening after a 40-minute meeting between Snow and two Democratic senators, Tom Harkin (Iowa) and Richard J. Durbin (Ill.), who had threatened to delay a confirmation vote over the pension issue. The proposed regulations govern the conversion of traditional pension plans to "cash balance" pensions, which tend to provide better benefits for younger and short-tenured workers but can penalize older workers.
Snow assured them that he would give the regulations a "fresh look" and would meet with representatives of labor unions and senior citizen groups.
Other issues that arose this week were more directly linked to Snow. A group of liberal Democrats -- and House independent Bernard Sanders (Vt.) -- hammered Snow on issues related to CSX and Snow's lucrative compensation, which has increased in recent years as the company's fortunes declined.
Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio) complained about CSX's refusal to repair a decrepit rail trestle that she said is a blight on the Toledo, Ohio, skyline.
A group of former workers from the CSX-owned Greenbrier resort in West Virginia came to Capitol Hill to charge that Greenbrier managers had taken away long-promised life insurance benefits in 2001. Adam Hollingsworth, a CSX spokesman, said the employees were never due life insurance after they left the company, but a clerical error kept them on the insurance roster until it was discovered.
Sanders complained that CSX had failed to pay any income taxes in three out of the last four years.
"We need a Treasury secretary who will help us develop a fair and progressive tax system, not one that gives huge tax breaks to large corporations," he said.
The child-support issue resurfaced when Snow's former wife, Frederica Johnson, said yesterday that a document filed with the Senate Finance Committee and statements made by White House officials concerning her dispute with Snow were misleading.
Snow told the committee this month that his ex-wife sued him in Montgomery County court for failing to pay child support for the care of their two sons. Snow asserted that she was not entitled to the money since neither child lived with her. A White House official initially said the sons had been living with Snow at the time.
Johnson said the younger son lived with Snow for only one academic year, though the disputed payments covered 19 months. The older son never lived with him, she said.
She said the document filed with the Senate committee implied that Johnson's claims had been largely dismissed even though the court ruled that Snow failed to pay child support, Johnson's central claim.
The administration's portrayal of the case "makes me look like some kind of money-grubbing person who has no truthful right to make the claims that I made," she said. "I don't think this is germane to John's ability to serve as Treasury secretary. I think he will be an excellent Treasury secretary. I just want to set the record straight."
None of those issues threatened Snow's confirmation. The Senate Finance Committee sent Snow's name to the full Senate by a unanimous voice vote yesterday morning, and committee members from both parties asked hesitant colleagues not to stand in the way.
"The American people are anxious about the flagging economy and the prospect of war," Sen. Max Baucus (Mont.), the ranking Democrat on the Finance Committee, said at a news conference. "The president has selected a man who is well qualified and we should act without delay."