The Republican campaign against Labor Secretary nominee Thomas E. Perez picked up serious momentum Wednesday, as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Sen. Marco Rubio both raised strong objections.
McConnell signaled in a floor speech that he might oppose Perez, calling him “a committed ideologue who appears willing, quite frankly, to say or do anything to achieve his ideological ends.”
In an interview with CQ Roll Call, Rubio was more direct, saying he plans to vote against Perez, the assistant attorney general in charge of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division whom President Barack Obama nominated for the Labor post on March 18.
“I’m not going to support his nomination,” the Florida Republican said. “I have tremendous admiration for his personal story and his qualifications. Unfortunately, I think his views are wrong and I think particularly, if you look at some of the left-wing activism that he’s been involved in and how he’s brought that into the Justice Department, to see that in the Labor Department I don’t think would be good for Americans.”
Rubio’s opposition could provide cover for other Republicans to oppose the nominee as well. Perez — whose family immigrated to the United States from the Dominican Republic — would, if confirmed, be the only Hispanic member of Obama’s second-term Cabinet, and the nomination battle comes as Rubio and some other Republicans have been trying to improve their party’s outreach to Hispanics because of their poor showing among that demographic group in last year’s elections.
Minority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, also expressed opposition Wednesday to Perez. Cornyn took to the floor to raise a number of issues that have become ammunition for Republicans in the confirmation fight.
At the top of that list is a charge that Perez, while at the DOJ, improperly brokered a deal with the city of St. Paul, Minn., in which the city withdrew from a Supreme Court lending discrimination case in exchange for the federal government agreeing not to join a pair of housing-related False Claims Act lawsuits against the city that were instigated by a whistle-blower.
Republicans have also seized on a 258-page internal report released by DOJ Inspector General Michael E. Horowitz in March cataloguing widespread mistrust and “deep ideological polarization” in the Voting Rights Section of the Civil Rights Division, a trend that dated back to the George W. Bush administration but that continued in the Obama era under Perez.
“I would ask my colleagues ... is this the type of person that we want running the Department of Labor, especially at a time when Congress is contemplating passage of important immigration reform laws?” Cornyn asked. “Given his record, I’m concerned Mr. Perez does not have the temperament or the competence we need as secretary of the Department of Labor. I will oppose his nomination.”
GOP Conference Chairman John Thune of South Dakota also raised concerns about Perez but said he’ll wait until after a committee vote on the nominee before deciding.
“I think he’s going to have a fairly tough time getting through the process,” Thune said. “There are a lot of questions and a lot of concerns. He’s got big problems in my view.”
Sen. David Vitter, R-La., has promised to try to block Perez on the floor because of concerns that the Civil Rights Division practiced “selective enforcement” of a voter registration law. Vitter said last month that he will demand a 60-vote threshold for confirmation.
A President’s Prerogative
Still, Sen. Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, said Wednesday he doesn’t believe Perez’s confirmation is currently threatened. He noted that some Republican senators tend to follow the axiom that a president should be allowed to pick his team.
“I know McConnell put out a strong statement,” Grassley said. “Let [opposition] foment a little bit and see then what people are saying. ... But there is a feeling among a lot of people in our caucus that a real mistake was made when he wasn’t opposed more vigorously when he got to be an assistant attorney general.”
In October 2009, when Perez was confirmed 72-22 as the head of the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division, he received the votes of 17 Republicans, nine of whom are still in the Senate, including Grassley.
Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, D-Md., who worked with Perez when the nominee served as Labor secretary in his home state, predicted that Perez will ultimately be confirmed.
“It may take a little while — longer than we would like,” Cardin said. “I find it difficult to believe that Republicans will really want to filibuster him. To do a Cabinet-level filibuster is something that would be extraordinary and I think they would want to avoid that.”
Committee Vote Delayed
Republicans used an obscure procedural tactic to delay the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee from voting on Perez’s nomination Wednesday. It was the second such delay for Perez; Chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, had earlier agreed to postpone an April 25 committee vote, after Republicans asked for more time to vet the nominee.
Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., backed by ranking member Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said he planned to object Wednesday afternoon to a generally agreed upon rule that allows committees to meet after the Senate has been in session for more than two hours. As a result, Harkin was forced to reschedule the vote for May 16.
Scott, who believes Perez took a heavy hand in his state in enforcing the 1964 Voting Rights Act, would not rule out a filibuster of his nomination. “It seems like there is still a red state bias and the notion of a partisan approach is not necessarily needed at the Department of Labor,” Scott said.
Alexander added, “I think there are very serious questions about his nomination and the more we learn about it, the more concerning they are.”
No Republicans signaled that they planned to vote against Perez during the HELP Committee’s April 18 confirmation hearing.
In his remarks Wednesday, McConnell cited Perez’s involvement in the dropped St. Paul whistle-blower lawsuits, which Republicans argue had the potential to return up to $200 million in damages to the Treasury. The separate case before the Supreme Court challenged the use of statistics to prove racial discrimination, and Justice Department officials reportedly were concerned that the court could strike down the practice.
“Here was a case where Mr. Perez was allegedly so concerned about a potential Supreme Court challenge to the legality of a theory he championed in housing discrimination suits, known as ‘disparate impact,’ that he quietly worked out a deal with St. Paul officials whereby they’d withdraw their appeal to the Supreme Court of the disparate impact case if he arranged for the federal government to throw out two whistle-blower complaints against St. Paul that could have recovered hundreds of millions of dollars for taxpayers that had been falsely obtained,” McConnell said.
He also charged that while Perez was a member of the Montgomery County Council in Maryland he “pushed through a county policy that encouraged the circumvention of federal immigration law” and “tried to get the county to import [Canadian] drugs even after a top FDA official said doing so would be, in his words, ‘undeniably illegal.’
“His willingness, time and again, to bend or ignore the law and to misstate the facts in order to advance his far-left ideology leads me and others to conclude that he’d continue to do so if he were confirmed to another, and much more consequential, position of public trust,” McConnell said.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.