Tom Perez could be the next Chuck Hagel.
So far, Perez, whom President Obama nominated for labor secretary last month, has generated little attention. His selection was announced as the Senate was in a heated fight over sequestration, and then a two-week recess immediately followed. Now, with the Senate back in session on Monday and Perez’s confirmation hearing less than two weeks away, he’ll face greater scrutiny.
Back in 2009, Perez established himself as a controversial figure when 22 Republicans voted against his confirmation to lead the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. Four years later, with his tenure there under fire from Republicans, he’ll face an even more hostile reception. Former GOP senator Jon Kyl of Arizona, who voted to confirm Perez in 2009, predicts Republican senators will be more wary of Perez this go-around. “Since then, he has gathered a lot of barnacles, at least among Republicans, because of things he’s done at DOJ,” Kyl observes.
According to a GOP Senate source, Perez’s hearing is expected to center on several concerns, including that he’s under congressional investigation regarding his involvement with an alleged quid pro quo deal between the Justice Department and St. Paul, Minn. The deal was that the Justice Department would cease prosecuting a case against St. Paul (which could have net around $180 million for the federal government) if the city dropped a case that could have led to a Supreme Court decision to change the definition of “disparate impact” in housing-discrimination cases. Senator Chuck Grassley (R., Iowa), who voted to confirm Perez in 2009, has already spoken out about Perez and threatened to block his nomination if he doesn’t get answers regarding this issue.
Other topics under consideration for the hearing include Perez’s handling of a voter-intimidation case against the New Black Panthers and the question of whether his actions at the Civil Rights division were unnecessarily politicized. Last month Senator David Vitter (R., La.) issued a statement saying, “Perez’s record should be met with great suspicion by my colleagues for his spotty work related to the New Black Panther case.” According to a reported issued by the Justice Department inspector general in March, Perez’s 2010 testimony to the U.S. Commission of Civil Rights “did not reflect the entire story regarding the involvement of political appointees” in the decision to drop charges against three of the four defendants, although the commission said there was no evidence suggesting Perez intentionally misled it.
Perez’s record on labor and immigration is also controversial, thanks to his work as a board member of CASA de Maryland, an organization known for helping illegal immigrants, and to his tenure at the Montgomery County Council, where he promoted spending taxpayer dollars on day-laborer sites to facilitate off-the-books work by illegal immigrants.
Republicans will be closely watching to see if Perez, like Hagel, ignites a firestorm among the grassroots. During the Hagel nomination, conservative opponents took to Twitter, Facebook, and the Web to battle the administration’s talking points. Capitol Hill insiders aren’t sure whether conservative bloggers and their readers are even paying attention to Perez yet, but if the buzz builds, they want to be ready to capitalize.
Roy Beck, founder and CEO of NumbersUSA, an organization that supports lower levels of immigration, says that “Perez is somebody who has spent his entire career favoring foreign workers, including illegal foreign workers, over American workers. So his loyalties are suspect.”
“Our members will be expressing those concerns to senators on the committee, and then to all senators if it gets to the floor,” Beck says of his 1.7-million-member organization.
But while Perez will undoubtedly get tough questions at his hearing, it’s unlikely that he will face a sustained filibuster, according to several Senate Republican sources. With an eye to the confirmation process for the cabinet selections of the next Republican president, GOP senators are wary of setting a precedent for filibustering nominees and will use discretion, unless public opposition to him grows. Even in the controversial case of Hagel, the final vote was a simple majority vote.
“There is a tradition to give the president the benefit of the doubt with respect to his own executive-branch nominations,” Kyl remarks. “At the end of the day, the dispositive vote will be a majority vote only. “
— Katrina Trinko is an NRO reporter.