Will DeVos Defections Energize Bid to Stop Labor Nominee?

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By Ben Penn

The effort to derail Andrew Puzder’s labor secretary confirmation could get a boost from new Republican opposition to President Donald Trump’s education nominee, but it’s still too early to draw close parallels.

Two moderate Republican Senators—Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) and Susan Collins (Maine)—both said Feb. 1 that they will vote against Betsy DeVos for secretary of education. That raises the question of whether they might also cross the aisle to disapprove of Puzder at either his committee vote or, more likely, on the Senate floor.

Until Puzder submits his paperwork and testifies before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, it's difficult to predict whether a few GOP Senators would defect and vote against the fast-food executive. Still, increased vulnerability for DeVos signals that lobbyists on both sides of the issue may redouble efforts to focus on Collins, Murkowski and other centrist Senators in both parties. If DeVos were to be officially blocked, this could give more ammunition to the anti-Puzder movement.

“I think the reasons to be uncomfortable about Betsy DeVos and Andy Puzder are even more disparate than apples and oranges,” Judy Conti, federal advocacy coordinator at the National Employment Law Project, told Bloomberg BNA Feb. 1. “What today signals is that they are not going to be a rubber stamp for their party’s president, and then you can make of that what you will when it comes to other nominations.”

Conti, unions and Democrats argue Puzder is uniquely disqualified to run the Labor Department because workers at his own company allege to be victims of overtime violations, employment discrimination and unfair labor practices. Puzder is the chief executive officer of CKE Restaurants Inc., parent company of the Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr. brands.

Collins said Feb. 1 in remarks on the Senate floor that she planned to vote against DeVos because of concern’s about the nominee’s commitment to public schools.

Industry Lobbyists Defend Puzder

Industry allies have been rushing to Puzder’s aide, pointing to what they say is high job satisfaction among his company’s workers and the thousands of jobs he’s created by rescuing the restaurant conglomerate from near collapse in 2000.

Rob Green, executive director of the National Council of Chain Restaurants—which includes CKE as a member—is among Puzder’s supporters. Green told Bloomberg BNA Feb. 1 he expects any GOP caucus concerns to subside once Puzder’s hearing takes place.

But that doesn’t mean lobbyists won’t be amplifying their outreach on both sides of the Puzder debate before the hearing.

“Obviously our efforts are targeted toward a number of senators, but we want to make sure that both Senator Murkowski and Collins have all the information they need to consider Andy’s qualifications,” Green said.

The HELP Committee Jan. 31 delayed Puzder’s hearing for a fourth time. A Republican committee aide told Bloomberg BNA that a new date won’t be scheduled until the Office of Government Ethics submits Puzder’s conflicts of interest paperwork.

DeVos cleared the HELP Committee Jan. 31 on a party-line vote, as Collins and Murkowski waited until before the Senate debate to state their intentions to vote against her. That means advocacy on Puzder has been targeted outside of the panel’s 23 members, and includes moderates from both parties.

Still, Collins and Murkowski are “the two we start with because they’re in the committee,” Conti said. “As members of the committee, we assume that their decisions are also influential on other members.”

Collins told Bloomberg BNA Jan. 25 that she met with Puzder but won’t decide whether to vote for him until he can address her concerns about Fair Labor Standards Act violations alleged against his company, among other issues.

Ex-HELP Staffer Sees `Two Separate Issues.’

Jane Oates, a former HELP Committee Democratic staffer, cautioned that Collins and Murkowski may still change their minds on DeVos.

They had nothing to lose by stating they will oppose her at this stage before they can potentially meet privately with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), said Oates, who was an assistant secretary at the DOL under Barack Obama.

“If there’s something out there” on Puzder, “I haven’t seen it yet that I think would be a compelling reason for a Republican to break rank and vote against him,” Oates, now vice president for external affairs at the Apollo Group, told Bloomberg BNA Feb. 1. “These two senators had nothing to lose and everything to gain by voting against DeVos.”

Leslie Silverman, an ex-HELP Republican labor counsel, agreed with Oates that the parallels are limited between the two nominees.

“Her qualifications for the Secretary of Education have been an issue from the outset and DeVos did little to dissuade her detractors during her nomination hearing,” Silverman, now a shareholder at management law firm Fortney Scott LLC in Washington, told Bloomberg BNA. “Andrew Puzder has a legal and business background. He has opined and testified before Congress on labor and employment policy issues.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Ben Penn in Washington at bpenn@bna.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Peggy Aulino at maulino@bna.com; Terence Hyland at thyland@bna.com; Christopher Opfer at copfer@bna.com

Copyright © 2017 The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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