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Labor nominee Hilda Solis hits GOP roadblock

Her appointment has been in limbo since her confirmation hearing, in which Republican senators say she was evasive on key questions.

January 30, 2009|Peter Nicholas

WASHINGTON — President Obama's choice to head the Labor Department is trying to overcome resistance to her nomination from Republican senators, who contend she dodged important questions during her confirmation hearing.

Rep. Hilda L. Solis, a Democrat from El Monte, is one of several prominent Cabinet nominees still awaiting confirmation more than a week after the president took office.

Eric H. Holder Jr., tapped to be attorney general, is likely to be confirmed by the Senate on Monday.

Tom Daschle, a former Senate majority leader, is expected to win confirmation as Health and Human Services secretary. The Senate Finance Committee's ranking Republican, Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, said the committee's vetting of Daschle was nearly complete.

Solis' nomination has been in limbo since Jan. 9, when she failed to impress Republican senators during a confirmation hearing before the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, chaired by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass).

The committee has taken no action on her appointment and has none scheduled. In Solis' camp, frustration is mounting.

Solis, who was elected to Congress in 2000, has compiled a reliably pro-labor voting record. But during the hearing, she said she was not "qualified" to answer when she was asked her position on "right to work" laws, which are often strongly opposed by labor unions. "Right to work" laws say employees cannot be compelled to join a union or pay dues as a condition of employment.

Solis also gave noncommittal responses to questions about the Employee Free Choice Act, which would make it easier for workers to form bargaining units. Under the act, employees could form a union by filling out a card, rather than voting in a secret election. Labor and business groups are prepared to spend millions of dollars dueling over the legislation, which could be taken up in the House in a few weeks.

Solis, the daughter of union members, was a co-sponsor of the card check-off legislation in 2007.

Republican members who questioned Solis about the bill left the Jan. 9 hearing disappointed.

Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) said in an interview: "She was at best evasive in answering questions." Isakson said he had not made up his mind about whether to vote for Solis.

One Republican Senate aide said members bristled at Solis' contention that she was not qualified to give certain answers.

"Members expect the nominee to be qualified to answer questions," said the aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont and member of the labor committee, defended Solis. "That's her crime -- standing up for working people and not big money interests," he said in an interview. "Based on the last eight years, there are a number of Republicans who think the function of the secretary of Labor is to represent big money rather than working families."

After the hearing, Republican members sent Solis a series of questions. In one reply, which was obtained by the Tribune Washington Bureau, Solis described her support for the union-organizing proposal as unambiguous. She said that if she became Labor secretary, she "would expect to continue to advocate for passage of the Employee Free Choice Act."

"Not all workers, of course, want or feel they need a union," she wrote in answer to another question. "But where a majority of the workers in a given workplace have decided that they want a union, it is a matter of basic fairness that they should be allowed to have one. That is why I support the Employee Free Choice Act."

The top Republican on the labor committee, Sen. Michael B. Enzi (R-Wyo.), has sent other questions to Solis and is awaiting answers. The White House said Solis had responded to more than 15 sets of written questions from the committee. A Democratic committee aide said Solis' appointment was being delayed while Republicans reviewed her replies.

No date for a committee vote has been set, but an Obama spokesman on Thursday described the nomination as "on track."

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peter.nicholas@latimes.com

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