WASHINGTON — Thomas Perez, nominated by President Barack Obama to be Labor secretary, clashed with Senate Republicans today at his confirmation hearing over decisions he made as the Justice Department’s top civil rights lawyer.
Republicans on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee criticized Perez’s role in persuading the city of St. Paul, Minn., to drop a Supreme Court case that lawmakers said would have undermined a government enforcement tool in housing discrimination cases.
Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the panel’s top Republican, said Perez engaged in “an enormous amount of wheeling and dealing” by agreeing to keep the Justice Department out of two unrelated cases against St. Paul that might have reaped as much as $200 million for the U.S. Treasury.
When Perez said the Department of Justice was acting as a guardian of civil rights in negotiating the deal, Alexander retorted: “The DOJ is a guardian of the taxpayers as well, is it not?”
Republicans focused their criticism of Perez, a child of Dominican immigrants who would be the only Hispanic in Obama’s second-term Cabinet so far, on what they say are ideological decisions he made as head of the civil rights division. A committee vote on the confirmation will be April 25, Chairman Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat, said when the hearing ended.
Sen. David Vitter, R-La., has vowed to block the nomination over separate questions related to the nominee’s work enforcing voter-registration laws, meaning Perez probably will need at least 60 votes to overcome a filibuster. Democrats control 55 Senate seats.
Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., has raised concerns about Perez’s role as former board president of CASA de Maryland, a group that aids immigrants, regardless of legal status.
Republicans including Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa this week released a report that said the St. Paul deal that Perez struck also hindered two other cases that could have generated cash for the Treasury, the report said.
Harkin defended Perez’s record and said the critics’ attacks are “unfounded.”
“I can assure this committee that Tom Perez has the strongest possible record of professional integrity, and that any allegations to the contrary are unfounded,” he said.
If confirmed to replace Hilda Solis, who quit in January, Perez would play a prominent part in pushing Obama’s agenda on issues including an immigration overhaul and raising the minimum wage to $9 an hour from $7.25. Perez, 51, was Maryland’s labor secretary from 2007 to 2009.
In testimony Thursday, Perez stressed the perspective he’s gained as a first-generation Dominican American. His father, Rafael, was a doctor who earned U.S. citizenship after enlisting in the Army. His mother arrived after her father was named the Dominican Republic’s ambassador to the United States.
He said his top goal as Labor Secretary would be to focus creating U.S. jobs, and pledged tough enforcement of wage and hour laws. He also sought to reach out to Republicans by stressing his work in previous administrations.
“While I am currently a political appointee in the civil rights division of the Justice Department, I spent the bulk of my 13-year tenure there as a career criminal prosecutor,” he said. “I have had the privilege of working under four presidents — Ronald Reagan, George Herbert Walker Bush, Bill Clinton and now President Obama.”
Republicans focused on the St. Paul case. The city’s appeal to the Supreme Court risked striking down the legal support for Justice Department enforcement actions in lending discrimination cases against financial institutions. The approach used the “disparate impact” analysis, in which statistical evidence can prove bias even if there isn’t provable intent.
The city agreed to drop the appeal in return for the department declining to join two whistle-blower lawsuits that alleged St. Paul misused federal housing dollars.
In the Republicans’ report, lawmakers said the whistle- blower cases might have produced as much as $200 million had they succeeded. The Republicans didn’t specifically accuse Perez of breaking any laws, but called into question the intent of his actions and suggested he may run afoul of Justice Department ethics rules.
In addition to Grassley, the report’s authors also included House Government Reform and Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif.
Perez told lawmakers that St. Paul first raised the possibility of linking the cases. He said he conferred with Justice Department ethics officials and followed their advice before continuing talks. He said officials in the civil division told him the whistle-blower case was weak.
“The value to the U.S. of losing a case is zero,” Perez said.
Dena Iverson, a Justice Department spokeswoman, has said the department negotiated the deal based on “appropriate considerations.”
The Senate is working its way through Obama’s nominees to fill jobs in his second term. Last week, the Senate confirmed Sally Jewell, an outdoor-equipment executive, to become U.S. Interior Secretary. The Senate is considering his nomination of Gina McCarthy, a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency assistant administrator, to lead that agency, and he is expected soon to name his pick for Commerce Secretary.
_ With assistance from Phil Mattingly in Washington.