Chao Drives Toward Quick Confirmation

Transportation designee wins bipartisan praise at Commerce Committee

Transportation Secretary-designee Elaine Chao testifies as her husband, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, looks on during her Senate Commerce Committee confirmation hearing on Wednesday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

On Wednesday morning, Sen. Mitch McConnell’s most important title in the Senate wasn’t majority leader. It was husband.

“I regret that I have but one wife to give for my country’s infrastructure,” the Kentucky Republican quipped at the confirmation hearing for his spouse, Transportation Secretary nominee Elaine L. Chao. The line was borrowed from former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, whose wife, Elizabeth, once held the same Cabinet post.

McConnell also praised his wife’s judgment.

The majority leader introduced Chao at what turned out to be a highly collegial Commerce Committee confirmation hearing. It was a contrast to the proceedings nearby at Senate Foreign Relations, where Secretary of State-designee Rex Tillerson was undergoing a grilling.

“Our country’s transportation infrastructure is the underpinning of our world-class economy — one of the most productive, flexible and dynamic in the world,” Chao said. “It is a key factor in productivity growth, which has provided millions of hardworking Americans with a standard of living that is the envy of the world. And it has provided us with unprecedented mobility, safety and security.”

President-elect Donald Trump has called for significant investments in infrastructure, likely with private financing involved. There is also urgent work to be done to reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration, after the bipartisan Senate plan of the previous Congress failed to morph into a bicameral agreement.

Commerce ranking Democrat Bill Nelson of Florida pressed his case against privatization of air traffic control towers, and pointed to the need for better security at airports, particularly after the recent mass shooting at the Fort Lauderdale, Florida, airport. But his remarks also got personal, pointing to the relationships that Chao has fostered in and around the Senate.

“You and my wife are the dearest of friends. She is one of your biggest fans, and I have watched you as you have comported yourself in a previous administration as a Cabinet member, and it has been with grace and excellence that you have done so,” Nelson said. “I certainly look forward to you in this new administration doing the same.”

[Opinion: Elaine Chao's Appointment: Sign of Diversity or Nepotism?]

Sen. Roy Blunt pointed out that Chao has previously been confirmed by the Senate four times, without a single recorded vote in opposition on the floor.

“You’re in the process of setting a record that — it’ll be hard for anybody else to beat in the future,” the Missouri Republican said.

Chao’s résumé is among the most impressive and extensive of the Trump nominees.

She served as Labor secretary for the entirety of the George W. Bush administration. She also led the Peace Corps and held senior positions at the Transportation Department that required the consent of the Senate.

“I think most members of this committee are delighted that you have been chosen for this position. I think you’ll be confirmed with a nice, bipartisan vote and I think we’ll be consulting and collaborating with you on a wide variety of issues,” Mississippi GOP Sen. Roger Wicker said in opening his questioning.

The question for Chao may simply be how quickly Senate leadership schedules her fifth Senate confirmation vote. She and the majority leader can discuss that over dinner.

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