Biden to keep Julie Su on indefinitely as Labor chief despite lack of Senate votes

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Julie Su, acting labor secretary, arrives to testify during the House Education and the Workforce Committee hearing titled “Examining the Policies and Priorities of the Department of Labor,” in Rayburn Building on Wednesday, June 7, 2023.
Tom Williams | CQ-Roll Call, Inc. | Getty Images

The White House plans to use a little-known law to keep Acting Labor Secretary Julie Su in the job even if she fails to win Senate approval, a White House official told NBC News.

“Upon Secretary Walsh’s departure, Acting Secretary Su automatically became Acting Secretary under its organic statute, not under the Federal Vacancies Reform Act,” the White House official said in an email. “As a result, Su is not subject to the time limits of the Federal Vacancies Reform Act and she can serve as Acting Secretary indefinitely.”

Last week, NBC News reported that a law dating back to 1946 allows the deputy labor secretary, to which Su was confirmed by the Senate in 2021, to “perform the duties of the Secretary until a successor is appointed.” Su was elevated to that role earlier this year after Marty Walsh stepped down. She was also nominated to replace him on a permanent basis.

But Su’s nomination for labor secretary has since stalled in the Senate, where Democrats control 51 votes and expect unified Republican opposition.

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After Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., came out against her, the White House called on him and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, I-Ariz., who hasn’t publicly taken a stance, to “reconsider” their positions, implying that she also opposes the Su nomination.

The White House’s decision reflects an attempt to navigate a politically thorny situation as President Joe Biden ramps up his 2024 re-election campaign.

Labor leaders and unions strongly support Su, and Biden has promised to be “the most pro-union president” in American history. Replacing her with a more corporate-friendly nominee in pursuit of winning Senate approval risks turning off a key constituency without much obvious political upside.

“The President’s support for Acting Secretary Su is unwavering,” the White House official said.

In April, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee voted 11-10 along party lines to advance Su’s nomination, but there hasn’t been any Senate action since then.

GOP senators have already denounced attempts for the White House to keep Su in her post, dialing up criticism of the nominee in a confirmation battle that has lasted several months.

The top Republican on the Senate HELP Committee called on Biden to formally withdraw her nomination on Thursday, citing a record-breaking delay in confirming Su and legal questions about keeping her in the position without formal Senate approval.

“It is my view that this use of the Succession Act violates the constitutional provision of advice and consent and would potentially open any DOL action under Julie Su’s leadership to legal challenges,” Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., wrote in a letter to Biden.

“If your administration believes Ms. Su cannot receive the necessary votes for confirmation, then you should rescind her nomination,” he added. “Any attempts to bypass the will of Congress, especially its constitutionally mandated advice and consent role, is unacceptable.”

Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., echoed Cassidy’s calls, writing in a tweet: “It’s clear the only way forward is for President Biden to withdraw her nomination.”

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., also pointed out on the chamber floor Thursday that Su’s nomination has spent nearly five months “in limbo while Senate Democrats decide whether they can even muster a party-line confirmation vote.”

He added, “American taxpayers have seen enough of Julie Su. When will Senate Democrats finally decide that they have, too?”

A Senate Democratic aide involved in the debate pushed back on the GOP criticisms, saying it is “very clear in the language of the Vacancies Reform Act that Deputy Secretary Su may serve as Acting Secretary as long as her nomination is pending.”

“More importantly, when the Senate confirmed Su to be Deputy Secretary of Labor just two years ago, they literally gave her a legal duty to serve as Acting Secretary of Labor when the Secretary resigns until a new Secretary is confirmed,” the aide said.

Keeping federal agency officials on the job in an acting capacity has precedent. Former President Donald Trump kept many department and agency heads in charge despite a lack of Senate approval, without much pushback from Republicans at the time.

At his weekly press conference on Wednesday, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., did not say whether he’d support Su staying on in an acting role if she lacks the votes.

“Look, we believe she is a strong nominee,” he said. “We’re trying to do everything we can to get her passed, plain and simple.”

— Elyse Perlmutter-Gumbiner contributed.

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