Commerce secretary nominee John Bryson, left, greets Sen. Dianne Feinstein… (Jim Lo Scalzo, European…)
Reporting from Washington — John Bryson, the former Southern California utility executive nominated to be Commerce secretary, promised senators that he would have a "relentless focus" on job creation as he tried to ease concerns that his environmental views were too liberal.
Bryson, 67, faced some tough criticism during his confirmation hearing Tuesday for favorable comments he made in 2009 about legislation to limit carbon emissions. The concerns were largely from Republicans but also came from Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.).
Although he lauded Bryson's 18 years as chief executive of Edison International and service on some high-powered corporate boards, Rockefeller said he wanted assurances that the coal industry in his state had nothing to fear should the nomination be confirmed.
"They will be worrying … 'Is this person going to be one of those people who tries to crush our existence?' " Rockefeller said.
Bryson told the chairman that he supported the use of coal as part of a diversified portfolio of energy sources at Edison. And he tried to assure Rockefeller and others on the committee that environmental issues would not be his priority as Commerce secretary.
"I will be focused … on jobs," Bryson said.
As part of that, he said, he would work to simplify the tax code and eliminate unnecessary regulation.
"Businesses in our country are too often stifled by absolutely unnecessary, cumbersome regulation," Bryson said. "If confirmed, I will be a voice in the administration for simplifying regulation and eliminating those where the cost of regulation exceeds the benefit."
But Rockefeller did not appear completely satisfied and asked for another private meeting with Bryson.
President Obama last month nominated Bryson to replace Gary Locke as head of the Commerce Department.
Most Democrats lauded the choice of a longtime business executive with experience as a government official, including a stint from 1979 to 1982 as president of the California Public Utilities Commission.
Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) called him a "bold and creative capitalist," and Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg (D-N.J.) said the nation was lucky that someone with Bryson's credentials was willing to serve as Commerce secretary.
"You understand what it means to meet a payroll," Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) said. "You understand what it means to create jobs, and you understand what it means when people are hurting — and people are hurting."
On Tuesday, Bryson also picked up the support of the Business Roundtable, an association of chief executives of major U.S. corporations that has been friendly to the Obama administration.
In a letter to Rockefeller and the committee's top Republican, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, the group lauded Bryson's "extensive experience in the private sector."
But Bryson's nomination has become bogged down by a dispute between the White House and congressional Republicans over pending trade deals, as well as questions by some lawmakers about his environmental stances.
Bryson has drawn fire from some Republicans for his role more than 40 years ago in co-founding the Natural Resources Defense Council, an activist environmental group.
He also has been criticized for supporting a 2009 House bill to address climate change through a market-based system of emissions limits allocated to companies as permits that could be sold to other firms, a procedure known as cap and trade.
"Are you anti-energy?" Hutchison asked.
"Absolutely not," Bryson said.
He said he supported cap-and-trade legislation, as did others in the utility industry, to provide some certainty about the issue at the time. He said he wouldn't push for it now.
Bryson also was pressed about a recent National Labor Relations Board complaint charging Boeing Co. with building a non-union assembly plant in South Carolina in retaliation for union strikes. Bryson, who served on the Boeing board before stepping down recently, said he did not agree with the NLRB action.