Republican leaders made their hopes clear last month. Sitting at a long Senate dais, Sen. Roy Blunt (Mo.) held up four fingers, noting that Elaine Chao had made her way through the confirmation process multiple times over the years “without a dissenting vote on the Senate floor.”
On Tuesday, Chao was confirmed as transportation secretary, bringing extensive government experience to a Trump administration seeking to spur a major infrastructure effort and shake up Washington’s ways. It was a big step for a familiar Washington figure with friends on both sides of the aisle.
But unanimity was not to be.
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.) voted no, as did his fellow Democratic senators Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.), Jeff Merkley (Ore.), Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) and Cory Booker (N.J.), and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).
President Trump’s executive order to temporarily block people from seven majority-Muslim countries and refugees from entering the United States undercut the chummy atmosphere that prevailed during Chao’s confirmation hearing before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, which voted unanimously last week in support of her nomination.
On Monday, Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) sent a letter asking Chao if she agreed with the order, whether her advice had been sought on it, and how she, as secretary, would approach “any further travel restrictions” and the resulting disruptions, among other questions.
Nelson said Tuesday that he waited all day Monday for an answer but did not receive one. So he called her and “lo and behold, the transition team for the secretary of transportation had not even given her the questions,” he said.
Given “the chaos that occurred in the airports over the weekend,” Nelson said, he thought that Chao “would have to be concerned about the administration of those airports when such an unusual order had come down.”
“What I found out in the conversation was the nominee to be secretary of transportation had not been consulted by the White House, not in advance, not during, not after the implementation” of Trump’s order, Nelson said.
Still, Nelson, the ranking Democrat on the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, recommended that his colleagues vote for her.
“We need Secretary Chao as someone who has the experience and has common sense and will be in a position to offer levelheaded, good, experience-based advice to the government going forward,” he said.
The vote was 93 to 6, with one senator voting present.
For Chao, who didn’t speak English when she came to the United States from Taiwan at age 8 and later made her way through Harvard Business School, Tuesday’s vote cements her latest stint in the highest reaches of American government at a time of tumult and opportunity.
Chao’s husband, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), had noted that her ascension makes her the second Kentuckian to be a Cabinet secretary since World War II. Chao was also the first, McConnell said at her confirmation hearing, when President George W. Bush appointed her to head the Labor Department.
Among her key jobs will be trying to help Trump live up to promises for vast infrastructure improvements, despite skepticism from conservatives and liberals alike. Many on the right have warned against heavy new spending, while those on the left have dismissed Trump’s campaign pledge to lure private investment with $137 billion in tax breaks.
The details of Trump’s plans — what projects might be targeted, and with what mix of resources — remain unclear. In response to Trump’s talk of a $1 trillion effort, Democrats have outlined a similarly sized plan of their own. Whether leaders of the two parties can find a compromise on infrastructure, an area many said they hoped to team up on, also is uncertain.
Funding unsurprisingly remains a crucial sticking point. Answering questions from the Senate, Chao had noted that “with or without a new infusion of funds,” much work is needed. A later follow-up noted that she would be well positioned to “help forge the collaboration needed” between Congress, the White House and others to help execute Trump’s “major infrastructure initiative.” Pressed by Democrats in the hearing to say whether she and Trump support direct new investments in infrastructure, she said: “I believe the answer is yes.”
Chao emphasized during her confirmation process that a key goal would be to remove government impediments to private investment, although she declined a request to outline which regulations she hoped to see rolled back. Chao, who once worked as a transportation banker, said there are “trillions in capital that equity firms, pension funds and endowments can invest.”
“She tends to come at problems with the view that if there’s a market-based way to achieve the same goal, she’d rather pick that one,” said Cameron Findlay, the general counsel for agriculture giant Archer Daniels Midland who served as deputy secretary when Chao headed the Labor Department.
Chao has pointed to a big role for public-private partnerships, although such projects often rely on tolls, which can be deeply unpopular. “In order to take full advantage of the estimated trillions in capital that equity firms, pension funds and endowments can invest, these partnerships must be allowed to participate with a bold new vision,” Chao said during her confirmation, though she did not provide specifics.
She said in ethics disclosures that, upon confirmation, she would resign from a number of corporate board positions.
Those include a post as director of News Corp., part of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire, where her director fees were listed as $228,000. Chao also listed $232,000 in fees as director of Wells Fargo, and $212,000 for her work on the board of Ingersoll Rand, a global industrial giant, among other positions.
Chao said she would forgo, during her time as transportation secretary, the discounted airfare she receives on Delta Air Lines, a legacy of her former position as a director of Northwest Airlines. Those airlines merged in 2008.