Published February 24, 2009
WASHINGTON -- California Rep. Hilda Solis won confirmation Tuesday as President Barack Obama's labor secretary, giving the agency a decidedly pro-worker tilt after years of business-friendly leadership under the Bush administration.
The 80-17 vote ended more than a month of delays prompted by GOP concerns over Democrat Solis' work for a pro-union organization, and later, revelations about her husband's unpaid taxes.
But Democrats said Solis had put to rest any questions and called her a powerful advocate for working families.
"For the last eight years working families have felt like an afterthought of the previous administration," Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said on the Senate floor. "Workers today need an advocate in the new administration who's going to stand up for them."
A final vote came only after Democrats won assurances earlier in the day that Republicans would not filibuster the nomination.
Solis, 51, was to be sworn in at a private ceremony later Tuesday night and was set to begin work Wednesday. She will manage an agency with an annual budget of about $53 billion and nearly 17,000 employees.
Her background as a fierce advocate for organized labor makes her a favorite of union leaders eager to wield more clout after years on the sidelines. She is the daughter of immigrants -- her father was a Teamsters shop steward in Mexico while her mother, a native of Nicaragua, worked on an assembly line and was a union member.
Solis has pledged to increase oversight of wage-and-hour laws, worker health and safety regulations and rules covering overtime pay and pay discrimination.
"For Secretary Solis, this is not just another job, but the culmination of a lifetime of action serving as a voice for people who work," said Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union.
AFL-CIO president John Sweeney called her confirmation "a huge victory" and said Solis would represent "working people, not wealthy CEOs."
Republicans had slowed the confirmation process as they probed Solis' role as treasurer for American Rights at Work, a nonprofit organization pushing for legislation to ease the formation of unions. She did not initially disclose the position to the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, an action she called an oversight.
Wyoming Sen. Mike Enzi, the committee's top Republican, initially suggested Solis' work for the group should bar her from taking part in debate over the Employee Free Choice Act, which would give workers the option of forming a union by simply signing a card or petition instead of holding secret ballot elections.
The bill is organized labor's No. 1 priority, but it faces intense opposition from business interests and most Republicans.
After Solis insisted she would not stay out of the debate, Enzi allowed her to submit a sworn affidavit that she exerted no control over the group's finances or spending on campaign advertising.
"It took longer than I would have liked to complete the necessary vetting," Enzi said.
Union officials accused Republicans of stalling the nomination for political reasons because they disagree with Solis' support for the card check bill.
The process was further delayed after news reports that Solis' husband had recently settled unpaid tax liens on his California auto repair business for about $6,400. White House officials said Solis and her husband were not aware of the liens.