The Health, Education and Labor Committee voted, 11 to 10, for Scalia to become the department's solicitor, dividing equally along party lines. Sen. James M. Jeffords of Vermont, the chamber's only independent, cast the deciding vote.
Democrats, led by committee Chairman Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, with strong backing from organized labor, attacked Scalia as unfriendly to U.S. working people, citing in particular his long-expressed opposition to ergonomics regulations and other protections for American workers. A Washington lawyer, Scalia, 39, is the son of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.
Jeffords, in voting for Scalia, said he was not necessarily the person he would have chosen. But Jeffords said he believed President Bush, as other chief executives, is entitled to his own nominees unless the choice is proven to be "unethical or unqualified."
"This was not an easy decision for me," Jeffords said. But he added that Scalia is a distinguished lawyer and "he has assured me that as solicitor he would vigorously enforce" the nation's labor laws.
Scalia, whose nomination has been pending for five months, told senators at his confirmation hearing that critics have misinterpreted or exaggerated his past views on ergonomics. In his personal writings, he has derided the science underlying ergonomics as "junk science par excellence" and "quackery."
He also wrote a commentary in the Wall Street Journal last year saying unions sought ergonomics regulation to "force companies to give more rest periods, slow the pace of work, and then hire more workers (read: dues-paying members) to maintain current levels of production."
At his hearing earlier this month, Scalia--who has represented mainly corporate clients--seemed to back away from such extreme views.
"I've taken pains to acknowledge that ergonomic pain is real and that ergonomics is valid," he testified. "I've urged employers to address workers' pain. An employer should act on that--I've written that. I've urged employers to address ergonomics and adopt ergonomics measures."
Scalia insisted his past criticisms were aimed at specific rules issued by the Labor Department's Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which he thought went too far in seeking to enforce ergonomics rules.
In Scalia's defense, committee Republicans noted Tuesday that these Clinton-era regulations were repealed by Congress last March in a bipartisan vote.
David Ruffin, Washington spokesman for the AFL-CIO, said after Tuesday's close vote that his organization would fight Scalia's nomination on the Senate floor by lobbying individual senators. Kennedy has threatened "protracted" debate on the nomination once it reaches the floor, perhaps later this month.
"This is a very big issue for us," Ruffin said. "It's going to be fought very vigorously."
In a letter to each senator last month, AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney said that "our opposition to Eugene Scalia's nomination is based on his track record as an outspoken opponent of key worker protection initiatives."
"It is not the mere fact of Mr. Scalia's opposition that causes us such concern--it is the extreme and radical nature of his opposition."
Kennedy called Scalia "an outstanding lawyer," saying he might be well-suited for another federal post. But his appointment is inappropriate at Labor, where he would be responsible for enforcing more than 180 federal labor laws, Kennedy said.
"The Solicitor of Labor is the workers' lawyer, responsible for protecting the interest of millions of working men and women. Yet Mr. Scalia is well-known for his long-standing opposition to workers' rights and protections," Kennedy said.
Labor Secretary Elaine Chao said after the vote that "even Gene Scalia's opponents admit to his outstanding qualifications.
"This nomination has been pending for over five months and we believe it is time now to move quickly to a vote on the Senate floor," she said.