Conservatives have been critical of Perez, the administration's top civil rights enforcer, portraying him as a dangerous liberal who would be an overly assertive regulator at the Labor Department. But despite predictions that his confirmation could be acrimonious, there was very little of the tough questioning that Republican adversaries said he deserved. The hearing before the Senate labor panel lasted barely two hours, with only a single round of questioning by senators.
Republicans on the committee appeared to take special care not to antagonize Perez, clearly mindful that a rough public interrogation could backfire on their party, which has begun efforts to mend relations with Latino voters. Democrats also turned down the volume.
Aware that fireworks were unlikely, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, skipped a line in his prepared remarks that defended Perez as the unfair "target of accusations and mudslinging."
Perez, 51, whose maternal grandfather was the Dominican Republic's ambassador to the United States and whose father was a Dominican immigrant, would be the only Latino in Obama's new Cabinet if confirmed by the Senate.
Republican lawmakers, led by House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Vista) and the Republican chairmen of the House and Senate Judiciary panels, have attacked Perez's record at the Justice Department. A 64-page report, which they issued this week, accused him of making "a secret deal" that "manipulated justice and ignored the rule of law" to keep the Supreme Court from ruling on a Minnesota case that might have curbed the use of a civil-rights enforcement mechanism.
Referring to the report, Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, the Labor panel's top Republican, said that Perez had done "an extraordinary amount of wheeling and dealing" outside of his normal responsibilities as head of the civil rights division to manipulate the system of justice "in an inappropriate way."
Last year, Perez worked out an agreement in which the city of St. Paul, Minn., dropped its appeal of a case that the Supreme Court had agreed to hear, and in return, the Justice Department did not intervene in an unrelated whistle-blower action against the city involving $200 million in housing funds. Some liberals feared that an adverse ruling in the high court case, which involved housing code enforcement, could weaken a doctrine known as "disparate impact," which has long been used to fight discrimination against racial minorities.
Perez, in his first public defense since being nominated last month, said that his efforts had been "in the interests of justice" and that he had received clearance from his department's ethics office to take the lead role in the matter. Perez said the decision not to intervene in the whistle-blower case was made by senior officials of the department's civil division, who had considered the whistle-blower case weak, "and not by Tom Perez."
Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) criticized Perez over an administration decision to challenge South Carolina's 2011 voter identification law. The senator said the action had been unfair and politically motivated. Scott also referred to a long-standing peeve of conservatives: the federal government's handling of alleged voter intimidation in Philadelphia by the New Black Panther Party in 2008. That case was one topic of a lengthy internal investigation of the voting rights division, released last month by the Justice Department's inspector general.
The report was critical of what it called "the politically charged environment" in the division, which Perez oversees, and said there was evidence of "a disappointing lack of professionalism" there. The report also said that Perez gave incomplete testimony to the U.S. Civil Rights Division about the decision to dismiss charges against some defendants in a voter-intimidation case that the Bush administration brought against the New Black Panther Party, but the report generally cleared the division of accusations of partisan or racial motivation in the enforcement of voting rights laws.
"Can we expect a more open, a more fair, and a more balanced approach from you as the head of the DOL?" Scott asked.
"Sir, I believe I have always been open and fair," Perez responded. "And I will continue to apply the facts to the law."
Labor issues, for the most part, got only secondary attention at the hearing. Obama's proposal for a higher federal minimum wage wasn't discussed, even though the president has said that Perez, as Labor secretary, would take a leading role in promoting that initiative, arguably the top labor item on Obama's second-term agenda.
The Senate committee will meet next week in closed session for further discussion of the Perez nomination. A Harvard Law graduate who once served as one of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy's advisors, Perez won Senate confirmation to his Justice Department job in 2009 by a vote of 72 to 22, but only after Republican opponents dragged out the process for six months.
His nomination as Labor secretary is expected to advance to the full Senate for a confirmation vote. But at least 60 votes may be needed to take it up. Republican Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana, who has also cited the New Black Panther case in connection with the Perez nomination, has threatened to block the vote until he gets answers from the Justice Department about a 2011 voting-rights case against his home state.