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Labor nominee Alexander Acosta questioned on his work record, plans for defending workers

Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), left, and Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) depart following their introductions of Labor secretary nominee Alexander Acosta, center, before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Labor secretary nominee Alexander Acosta refrained on Wednesday from backing key Obama-era rules that have been in limbo since the election.

Acosta, 48, would not say during his confirmation hearing whether he supported rules that would expand eligibility for overtime pay or restrict the advice given to retirement savers, citing orders from President Trump to review and scale back regulations.

The nominee also faced questions about some of the most trying moments in his career, including his handling of political hiring that went on under his watch at the Justice Department and a controversial plea deal he cut with wealthy financier Jeffrey Epstein.

Labor nominee Acosta cut deal with billionaire guilty in sex abuse case

His responses at times frustrated some Democrats on the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, who are worried Acosta may not do enough to challenge the White House to make sure workers are protected.

Sen. Patty Murray (Wash.), ranking Democratic member of the Senate HELP committee raised concerns about Acosta’s time at the civil rights division of the Justice Department. An investigation from the Office of the Inspector General found that Acosta “did not take sufficient action” as assistant attorney general of the division to supervise a former senior division official who was “inappropriately” hiring mostly conservative attorneys.

“I want to know if you will bow to political pressure,” Murray asked during the hearing.

Acosta said that he deeply regretted the incident, which he acknowledged happened on his “watch,” and he assured senators that he would “not allow” political hiring to take place at the Labor Department if he were confirmed. But when pressed on how he would handle political pressure, he replied that Trump would be his “boss.”

“We all work for the president and we all will ultimately follow his direction unless we feel like we can’t,” Acosta said.

During the questioning, Democrats also pressed Acosta on how he would handle pending rules that would affect workers and retirement savers. A few senators, including Murray and Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), asked Acosta how he would handle a rule that would expand the number of workers eligible for overtime pay, which was finalized last year by the Labor Department but is now being challenged in court.

The rule would more than double the income threshold that determines which workers should be eligible for overtime pay. Anyone earning less than $47,500 a year would be paid time and a half when they work more than 40 a week, up from the current threshold of $23,660 a year.

Acosta said it was “unfortunate” that the rule had not been updated in more than a decade because life has “become more expensive.” But he also said doubling the salary threshold may “create a stress on the system,” including higher costs for businesses.  Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) grew frustrated by Acosta’s general responses to how he would treat some regulations. In one tense exchange, she asked him if he would uphold a rule finalized last year that would require brokers working with retirement savers to put their clients’ interests ahead of their own.

But Acosta would not say whether he supports the regulation, noting that he would comply with Trump’s executive order, which asked the Labor Department to reevaluate the rule and determine if it will limit investors’ options or increase litigation.

“You have dodged every one of my questions,” Warren said. “If you can’t give me straight answers on your views on this and commit to stand up for workers on these obvious and very important issues then I don’t have any confidence you’re the right person for this job.”

Several senators also asked Acosta how he plans to address the 21 percent budget cut the Trump administration proposed for the Labor Department. Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) was among those asking for details on how Acosta would treat job training programs such as Job Corps, which provides education and training to disadvantaged youths. The budget proposal called for closing some Job Corps centers, but did not specify how many locations would be affected.

Acosta touted the benefits of apprenticeship programs and said he would look for data to measure the effectiveness of job training programs.

“The principle that needs to be used to guide the spending is ‘how successful is the program?’” he said.
Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) also pressed Acosta about a plea agreement reached with wealthy financier Jeffrey Epstein when Acosta was a top federal prosecutor in Miami. Epstein avoided federal charges and served a 13-month sentence after he pleaded guilty to state charges of soliciting prostitution. The agreement was viewed by some critics as a sweetheart deal because it allowed Epstein to avoid a more severe prison sentence.

Acosta told Kaine that the original charge debated would not have led to any jail time and that “based on the evidence,” prosecutors decided to go with a deal where Epstein would have to register as a sex offender and agree to a prison sentence.

The reception Acosta has faced so far, even from critics, is a dramatic change from the experience with President Trump’s first labor nominee, fast-food executive Andrew Puzder, who faced staunch opposition from unions and consumer advocates who worried he would not defend workers’ rights. Puzder ultimately withdrew his nomination amid wavering support from Republicans.

Some workers advocates said after the hearing that they wanted more reassurances that Acosta would defend the wage rule. “He spoke about how unjust it is that the overtime regulation is so out of date, but made absolutely no commitment to defend the Obama administration regulation,” Christine Owens, executive director at the National Employment Law Project, a group that advocates for low-wage workers, said in a statement.

Some Democrats, including Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) have said they will support him.  The Senate HELP committee is expected to vote on his nomination next week.