As President Biden’s nominee for Labor Secretary, Julie Su, heads into her first confirmation hearing this week, the prospects of her securing the Cabinet position are far from a lock.
In Democrats’ 51-49 Senate majority, where Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) is already absent, Su has to convince every Democrat on the roster to vote for her—if, as expected, no Republican backs her. That wouldn’t necessarily be a problem, but a critical handful of Democratic moderates—and one independent—already face tough re-elections next year, and Republicans are already painting Su as a Democratic disaster.
An Axios report Thursday said Manchin, for one, already has reservations. And last month, the senator suggested he was only comfortable supporting Su for the deputy secretary role she currently holds because Marty Walsh, who many perceived as more moderate, was above her.
The White House, coming off of two high-profile nominee withdrawals in recent weeks, insists it’s undeterred. Officials say they have no doubt about Su’s prospects, despite some early trepidation among senators.
“Her qualifications and track record show that any doubts about her ability to get the job done are unfounded. And stalling a history-making nominee who’s ready to hit the ground running and work with all sides would hurt our economy,” one White House official said. “We’re focused on the hearing Thursday, and feel confident about Julie’s confirmation process.”
Even Marty Walsh himself is brushing aside concerns from Manchin—one of the most likely senators to block Su’s nomination.
“I would say to people that feel comfortable voting for me, when you’re voting for Julie Su, you’re basically voting for an extension of what I did, because we did it collaboratively,” Walsh told The Daily Beast in an interview. “I don’t see what the fear is. I don’t think it’s—let me put it this way: not that I don’t see it, it’s not justified.”
Whether it’s justified or not, Republicans are preparing to attack Su. And the hesitancy from some Democratic moderates portends a tough fight.
Biden has had relatively low turnover in his upper echelons of staff. Su will be Biden’s first Cabinet-level nominee since his original round of nominations. In 2021, Su was an early favorite of progressives for the Labor Secretary role. But the position ultimately went to Walsh.
Su was instead confirmed by the Senate for her current deputy position by a 50-47 vote, with all Democrats supporting her.
After it was revealed in February that Walsh was leaving the administration to lead the National Hockey League’s Players’ Association, a flurry of names emerged for his replacement. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), a labor stalwart, wanted Association of Flight Attendants President Sara Nelson. House Speaker Emeritus Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) wanted former Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-NY), who lost re-election last year. A handful of other labor-hawks were floated as well.
But for many progressives—and especially for Asian American and Pacific Islander lawmakers—Su’s turn was in order. (There are currently no Asian American or Pacific Islanders in Biden’s relatively diverse Cabinet.)
Su’s record, however, came with some easy ammo for Republicans. She oversaw California’s labor agency in 2020. In 2021, the state’s unemployment division revealed it’d mistakenly paid as much as $31 billion in unemployment benefits to scammers. Su also supported a controversial California bill that would have companies treat gig workers as full-time employees.
“Stand Against Su,” a pop-up campaign against the California labor labor leader, has been planting billboards in Arizona, Montana, and West Virginia, in an apparent bid to corner left-leaning moderates like Sens. Kyrsten Sinema (I-AZ), Jon Tester (D-MT) and Joe Manchin (D-WV). The ads call Su “anti-business and anti-worker.”
“Julie Su is the most radical and flawed nominee for U.S. Labor Secretary in recent memory whose confirmation could imperil millions of opportunities for hard-working families. It is imperative that Senators from both sides of the aisle scrutinize Su’s anti-business, anti-worker record,” a Stand Against Su spokesperson told The Daily Beast in a statement.
A number of business associations have come out against Su as well, often citing the same concerns on her record that Republicans plan to lean into.
“Deputy Secretary Su has a troubling record and is currently overseeing the Department of Labor’s development of anti-worker regulations that will dismantle the gig economy. This does not inspire confidence in her ability to hold her current position, let alone be promoted,” Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-LA), the ranking member on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee, wrote in a statement on Su’s nomination.
House Republicans, though they have no actual say in whether or not to confirm Su, are also in a tizzy. Ahead of Su’s first hearing, the Republican-led House Workforce Protections subcommittee said it would host a hearing on California’s approach to gig-workers—a move that’s sure to bring Su’s record on the matter into conversation.
But in the labor movement, Su has widespread support. Sanders, who chairs the Senate HELP Committee that will host Su’s first confirmation hearing this week, ultimately welcomed her nomination. Union and labor leaders across the country applauded the White House for the selection. And those leaders are sure to use the positive highlights of her record to defend against the GOP attacks.
If Su ultimately doesn’t get enough Democratic support, she wouldn’t be alone. In recent weeks, Gigi Sohn, Biden’s nominee for a seat on the Federal Communication Commission, withdrew shortly after Manchin said he would not support her nomination. Biden’s Federal Aviation Administration nominee, Phil Washington, also withdrew from consideration last month after months of limbo and sustained Republican attacks.
Meanwhile, the White House and Democratic leadership appear eager to move Su’s nomination through in a timely manner. It’s unclear if there are any backup timelines if Feinstein, an 89-year-old who is recovering from a case of shingles, is needed to aid Su’s numbers.
When asked about Su’s prospects of being confirmed, Walsh stopped short of saying he was outright optimistic. But he said he’s encouraging Su, who he called a friend, to take it one step at a time.
“We’re dealing with the political atmosphere we’re in today—and I think that what I said to Julie was just just focus on one issue at a time. So focus on the hearing and worry about the goal later,” Walsh said. “Get the hearing done.”
“She’s got an opportunity publicly to answer any questions or concerns that some lawmakers might have,” he said.