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Senate committee approves Pete Buttigieg’s nomination as transportation secretary

Former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg, President Biden's nominee for transportation secretary, spoke at his Senate confirmation hearing on Jan. 21. (Video: Reuters)

The Senate Commerce Committee on Wednesday gave its approval to Pete Buttigieg’s nomination as President Biden’s secretary of transportation.

The committee voted 21 to 3, sending his nomination to the Senate floor for a possible final vote later this week.

In a tweet, Buttigieg thanked the committee for its support and said he would work with its members “as we get to work on infrastructure and building our economy back better.”

The vote came after Buttigieg sat for a friendly 2 1/2-hour hearing before the committee last week, delivering a wide-ranging performance that impressed Republicans and Democrats alike. He tackled questions on the themes likely to dominate his tenure: recovery from the coronavirus, the administration’s desire to invest in infrastructure and climate change.

“Good transportation policy can play no less a role than making possible the American Dream,” he told senators during the hearing.

Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Ind., also tackled issues such as rural air service and trucking regulations — getting into the weeds that make up much of the department’s day-to-day work.

Sen. Maria Cantwell (Wash.), the committee’s top Democrat, said before the vote that Buttigieg’s experience as a mayor and academic background as a Rhodes scholar would set him up well for the role.

Cantwell said he had demonstrated “impressive understanding of the future of our transportation policies and the major changes they are going through and a granular level of transportation infrastructure issues.”

Buttigieg, 39, stands to become the youngest person to lead the department and would be the first openly gay person confirmed to a Cabinet seat by the Senate.

Buttigieg, who himself sought the Democratic presidential nomination, is also set to become a high-profile spokesman for Biden’s “Build Back Better” agenda. Buttigieg has regularly appeared on television since being nominated to the transportation job and retains his own support in the party.

Buttigieg cites ‘generational opportunity’ on infrastructure at confirmation hearing

Sen. Roger Wicker (Miss.), the committee’s top Republican, said last week he was “quite certain” Buttigieg would be confirmed and praised him Wednesday as an “impressive nominee.”

“Transportation issues historically have been addressed on a bipartisan basis, and I expect to continue that practice with Mr. Buttigieg,” Wicker said in a statement after the vote.

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) has said he aims to hold a final vote on Buttigieg’s nomination this week. The Senate has confirmed Biden’s choices to lead the departments of state, defense and treasury and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

The sometimes-sleepy Transportation Department has responsibility for keeping the nation’s roads and skies safe, as well as funding highways and transit systems. But it would be a perch for the administration to tackle climate change — through the regulation of car and SUV emissions — and to try to undo the legacy of racist planning decisions, by ensuring the billions of dollars at the department’s disposal are spent equitably.

“At their worst, misguided policies and missed opportunities in transportation can reinforce racial and economic inequality by dividing or isolating neighborhoods and undermining government’s basic role of empowering Americans to thrive,” Buttigieg said during his hearing.

If confirmed, Buttigieg would immediately have work to do helping to ensure transportation networks keep functioning as the coronavirus continues to spread. Cantwell said that she hoped the nomination would be finalized quickly and that she planed to ask Biden and Buttigieg what they could do to ensure people involved in delivering food get access to vaccines.

“I want to make sure our transportation infrastructure workers are prioritized to get those vaccines and we can continue to move product through the United States,” she said.

While the nomination hearing was largely confrontation-free, Buttigieg was questioned by Republicans over whether he would support raising the gas tax (he left the door open, only for a spokesman to close it afterward) and projected job losses caused by Biden canceling the Keystone XL oil pipeline project.

The exchanges were a reminder of partisan divisions over infrastructure investment and the climate that will shape any progress the new administration is able to make in Congress, where Democrats hold power by the barest of margins.

The three “no” votes on Buttigieg’s nomination Wednesday were cast by Republican Sens. Marsha Blackburn (Tenn.), Ted Cruz (Texas) and Rick Scott (Fla.).

Buttigieg’s own experience in the transportation field is thin, but the administration has recruited officials with backgrounds in state and city transportation agencies and environmental regulation to serve as senior members of his team.