WASHINGTON — Labor secretary nominee Thomas Perez sought to assure senators Thursday that he would approach the job with an open mind and a willingness to work with business and labor groups alike to create new jobs.
“You will always have a person who has an open and balanced approach,” Perez told the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee of his plan for leading the Labor Department.
The comments at his confirmation hearing were aimed at diffusing Republican claims that Perez’s views are outside the mainstream and that his decisions as the government’s top civil rights enforcer were often guided by political ideology.
But some Republicans remain wary of Perez’s aggressive enforcement as head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. A report by top GOP lawmakers this week accused Perez of misusing his power to persuade the city of St. Paul, Minn., to withdraw a housing discrimination case before it could be heard by the Supreme Court. In exchange, the Justice Department agreed not to intervene in two whistleblower cases against St. Paul that could have won up to $200 million for taxpayers.
Perez told the committee he wanted St. Paul to drop its case because he feared the Supreme Court might strike down the government’s use of statistics to prove lending discrimination cases.
“Bad facts make bad law,” he said at the hearing.
Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander, the panel’s top Republican, questioned the rationale for the deal and said Perez seemed to be “manipulating the legal process” to try to get the outcome he wanted “in a way that’s inappropriate.”
Alexander said the deal makes him worry about Perez’s commitment to bringing whistleblower cases at the Labor Department, which has jurisdiction over dozens of statutes allowing private citizens to reveal government waste or mismanagement.
Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, the committee chairman, defended Perez, saying the deal was cleared by Justice Department ethics officials and that career lawyers at the Civil Division decided the whistleblower cases were not that strong. One of the cases was later dismissed, but the other is still in litigation led by a private party.
“From everything I can see, you acted ethically and appropriately to advance the interests of the United States,” Harkin said.
Perez said he is proud of his accomplishments at the Justice Department, pointing to a 40 percent increase in the number of human trafficking cases prosecuted, stepped up hate crimes enforcement and efforts to protect the employment rights of military service members.
He said his top priorities would be “jobs, jobs and jobs,” along with getting Congress to reauthorize the Workforce Investment Act, which funds job training programs. He also pledged to continue the Obama administration’s aggressive enforcement of safety, wage and hour laws.
Perez highlighted his background as the son of immigrants whose parents came to the United States to escape a repressive dictatorship in the Dominican Republic. Perez is the only Hispanic that Obama has tapped so far for his second-term Cabinet.
While some GOP lawmakers have raised questions about his qualifications for the Labor Department, Republicans are also treading carefully at a time when the party is seeking to broaden its appeal to Latino voters.
Democrats claim that Perez’s critics are politically motivated. More than 80 civil rights groups, labor unions and Hispanic organizations signed onto a letter supporting Perez, calling him a strong leader and forceful advocate for labor rights. Over the past four years, Perez launched a record number of investigations into civil rights abuses at police departments around the country and played a leading role in challenging voter ID laws in Texas and South Carolina for restricting minority voting rights.
Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., complained that the South Carolina voter ID case was unfair. “As I look at your management style, it seems to have a political perspective and political bias,” Scott said.
“I respectfully disagree with your characterization of what we have done,” Perez replied.
The committee is expected to vote on his confirmation next week. But Perez faces a tougher road for confirmation in the full Senate. Sen. David Vitter, R-La., plans to put a hold on the nomination, forcing at least 60 votes to move it forward.
Perez would replace Hilda Solis, a former member of Congress from California, who left the post in January. If confirmed by the Senate, he would take over the Labor Department as Obama pushes an increase in the federal minimum wage and an overhaul of immigration laws that could lead to changes in the nation’s programs for admitting foreign workers.
Before taking the job as assistant attorney general, Perez served as secretary of Maryland’s Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation, where he vigorously enforced safety and wage laws and pushed through tough new consumer protections against foreclosure.