Senate panels advance Trump's picks for labor, agriculture

WASHINGTON (AP) - The Senate on Thursday advanced President Donald Trump's nominees to lead the labor and agriculture departments and moved the new administration closer to filling the final pair of empty seats in his Cabinet.

In back-to-back tallies just off the Senate floor, two committees sent the nominations of former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue and law school dean Alexander Acosta to a full Senate vote. Republicans hope to vote next week on confirming Perdue to head agriculture and Acosta at labor.

The Agriculture Committee advanced Perdue's nomination by voice vote. The Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee backed Acosta along party lines, 12-11. Democrats have said they are troubled by Acosta's failure to say whether he would uphold current Labor Department rules and by a political hiring scandal on Acosta's watch as head of the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department.

The potential confirmations, especially Acosta's, would cap Trump's sometimes-bumpy drive to confirm members of his Cabinet, some without the extensive vetting usually conducted on nominees. Some of Trump's nominees, such as Defense Secretary James Mattis, have sailed to confirmation. Others, such as Education Secretary Betsy Devos, survived brutal confirmation hearings and Democratic opposition.

Trump's attempts to fill the top post at Labor have been especially fraught.

The first choice, fast food CEO Andrew Puzder, was beset by problems in Puzder's background that ultimately alienated enough Republicans to push confirmation out of reach. Puzder struggled to come up with a plan to divest himself from his financial interests if confirmed. And he acknowledged having employed a housekeeper who was not authorized to work in the U.S., paying the related taxes five years after firing the worker - and then, only after Trump nominated him.

Puzder withdrew his name from consideration in mid-February. Two days later, Trump nominated Acosta.

The president and Senate Republicans stressed that Acosta had been confirmed by the Senate three times - to the Justice Department, the National Labor Relations Board and as South Florida's federal prosecutor. That meant that unlike Puzder, Acosta had received some vetting that passed muster with the Senate that is now considering him for a fourth post - Labor secretary.

At his confirmation hearing, the 48-year-old dean of Florida International University law school said he would stand up to any political pressure from the White House and promised to be a fair arbiter of disputes at the agency. But Democrats, led by Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, said they were concerned that he would just take orders from Trump, who he called his "boss." They pointed to a Justice Department's inspector general report that said Acosta had insufficiently supervised an employee who was using political tests in hiring.

Perdue, 70, gained bipartisan support during his confirmation hearing by stressing that he has worked with Democrats in the past. He tried to reassure farm-state senators in both parties who are fearful about the impact of Trump's proposed deep cuts to farm programs.

Perdue also told senators concerned about Trump's agenda that "trade is really the answer" for farmers dealing with low crop prices. He said he would be a "tenacious advocate and fighter" for rural America when dealing with the White House and other agencies.


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