President Donald Trump’s second nominee for Labor secretary, law school dean R. Alexander Acosta, frustrated Democrats at his Senate confirmation hearing Wednesday by dodging questions about how he would handle some key workplace rules enacted by the Obama administration.
But Acosta, a former Justice Department official, had strong support from Republicans during the hearing before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, and he appeared on track for confirmation.
That was a sharp contrast to Trump’s first pick for the job, Southern California fast-food executive Andy Puzder, who withdrew last month after some GOP senators balked at voting for him amid a series of controversies. On Tuesday, Puzder said he is stepping down as chief executive of CKE Restaurants.
Acosta is a much more conventional pick than the outspoken and flamboyant Puzder.
The dean of the law school at Florida International University in Miami since 2009, Acosta acted like a lawyer in cautiously answering some tough questions.
Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), the committee’s chairman, cited Acosta’s experience of having been confirmed twice before by the Senate for federal jobs as a reason why the hearing “went very well.”
“I have no doubt you’ll be confirmed,” Alexander told him at the end of the three-hour hearing.
If that happens, Acosta would be the only Latino in Trump’s Cabinet.
Acosta told senators that the experiences of his parents, Cuban immigrants who lived “paycheck to paycheck,” taught him the value of having a job. He pledged to push for increased opportunities and enforce workplace safety rules.
“Helping Americans find good jobs, safe jobs, should not be a partisan issue,” Acosta said.
He also said he would not bow to “inappropriate” political pressure and suggested he would resign if he believed he could not follow a directive from Trump.
But Democrats pressed Acosta about his record as a Justice official and federal prosecutor, as well as his views on Obama initiatives to expand overtime pay, place new requirements on retirement advisors and protect workers from exposure to potentially deadly silica dust.
Some of the toughest questions came from Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who helped lead the fight against Puzder.
After telling Acosta she was glad he was Trump’s nominee instead of Puzder, Warren told him, “the test for secretary of Labor is not are you better than Andrew Puzder. The test is will you stand up for 150 million American workers.”
Warren tried to get Acosta to commit to not weakening the silica dust rule, to fight a legal stay of the expanded overtime requirements and to give his view on the retirement advisors rule. He would not.
Acosta cited executive orders by Trump for cabinet secretaries to review existing regulations and one specifically directing the Labor Department to look at the retirement advisors rule. Known as the fiduciary rule, it requires investment brokers who handle retirement funds to put their clients’ interests ahead of other factors, such as their own compensation or company profits.
The Labor Department has delayed implementation of the rule, which was set to take effect next month, to conduct the review.
Acosta said he would have to follow the executive order.
Warren said he was dodging questions that she indicated she would ask after a meeting two weeks ago.
“If you can’t give me straight answers on your views on this, not hide behind an executive order…. Then I don’t have any confidence you’re the right person for this job,” she said.
In response to questioning from other senators, Acosta indicated he was in favor of increasing the threshold for overtime pay.
In 2015, the Obama administration moved to more than double the annual salary threshold of $23,660, above which workers qualify for overtime pay when they work more than 40 hours in a week. It hadn’t been raised since 2004 and is not adjusted each year for inflation.
“I think it’s unfortunate that rules that involve dollar values can go more than a decade without updating,” he said, noting that leads to large increases that can disrupt businesses.
He acknowledged Republican concerns about the new annual overtime threshold of $47,476, which was finalized by the Labor Department last spring. In November, a Texas federal judge blocked the rule from going into effect.
Acosta noted that a simple cost of living adjustment would move the threshold to about $33,000 and suggested he might be open to that. But when pressed by Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), Acosta would not be pinned down.
No Republicans on the committee indicated any problems with his nomination.
But some Democrats in addition to Warren expressed concerns about Acosta, who was head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division from 2003 to 2005 under former President George W. Bush.
Acosta was criticized in a 2008 inspector general’s report for not sufficiently supervise a subordinate whose hiring decisions “favored applicants with conservative political or ideological affiliations and disfavored applicants with civil rights or human rights experience whom he considered to be overly liberal.”
Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) told Acosta that he “at best ignored an extraordinary politicization of the work of this critical division — and at worst, actively facilitated it.”
Acosta promised her he would not allow political views to be considered in the hiring of staffers.
“That conduct should not have happened,” he said. “It happened on my watch… and I deeply regret it.”
After serving in the Justice Department, Acosta became U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Florida.
Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), questioned Acosta about a plea deal he oversaw that allowed billionaire Jeffrey Epstein to serve only 13 months in jail after being accused of having sex with underage girls. The deal was criticized by some as being too lenient and is the subject of a civil lawsuit by two victims, who want to reopen the case.
Acosta said the pending suit limited what he could say, but he defended the deal. He said that a state grand jury had recommended a single count of solicitation that would not have resulted in any jail time. The plea deal meant Epstein went to jail, had to register as a sexual offender and allowed victims to seek restitution.
Follow @JimPuzzanghera on Twitter