President Trump’s nominee for Transportation secretary easily won confirmation on Tuesday, even amid fallout from the administration’s temporary ban on travelers from seven majority-Muslim nations.
In a 93-6 vote, the Senate endorsed Elaine Chao to lead the Transportation Department, where she is expected to be a crucial ally in helping Trump move a massive infrastructure package through Congress.
Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Sens. Kristen Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.) Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) all voted against her. Schumer told reporters he opposed Chao because she has yet to take a public position on the White House’s immigration ban.
Chao, who is married to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and is a veteran Cabinet member, was unanimously approved by voice vote during committee consideration. McConnell, however, voted “present” on Tuesday.
Chao ran the Department of Labor under President George W. Bush and served as deputy Transportation secretary in the George H.W. Bush administration. She was also Federal Maritime Commission chairwoman and deputy Maritime administrator.
“It would be hard to come up with a more qualified nominee than Secretary Chao for this important role,” Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), chairman of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, said on the Senate floor Tuesday.
Chao is set to be sworn in at 5 p.m., White House press secretary Sean Spicer said Tuesday.
Senators noted during her confirmation hearing that Congress has confirmed Chao four times previously, without a single dissenting vote on the Senate floor.
The streak was broken Tuesday, however, just days after Trump signed a sweeping executive order banning immigrants from seven predominately Muslim countries for 90 days; halting refugee resettlements for four months; and indefinitely suspending Syrian refugee resettlement.
Chao’s floor vote also came as Democrats are gearing up for a fierce battle over Trump’s nominee to the Supreme Court, which he is expected to announce Tuesday evening.
Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), ranking member on the Transportation Committee, sent a letter to Chao on Monday asking her whether she agrees with the new immigration restrictions or was consulted in crafting them.
He also wanted to know whether Chao thinks airlines should be reimbursed for the disruptions and confusion at airports over the weekend caused by the “lack of clear communication from the administration.”
Nelson, who has noted that his wife has a personal relationship with Chao, said on the Senate floor Tuesday that he spoke with the nominee by phone on Monday evening. Nelson said he is concerned Chao wasn’t consulted by the administration on drafting the order, but urged his colleagues to support her so that Chao could work with the White House on critical issues in the future.
“What I found out in that conversation was the nominee to be the secretary of Transportation had not been consulted by the White House, not in advance, not during, not after, the implementation of those orders,” Nelson said. “We need Secretary Chao as someone who … will be in a position to offer level-headed, good experience-based advice to the government going forward.”
Now that she’s confirmed, Chao hopes to establish an infrastructure “task force” to start exploring the best ways to upgrade the nation’s ailing transportation system. During her confirmation hearing, Chao expressed support for including some direct federal funding, streamlining regulations and upholding so-called “Buy America” rules in any infrastructure bill.
She also plans to enforce safety regulations, spur innovation on drones and self-driving cars and ensure equal access to transportation in both rural and urban areas.
However, Chao has generally remained light on details about many of her policy ideas. She punted on whether she agrees with a contentious proposal to separate air traffic control from the federal government, a debate that will soon resurface in Congress as lawmakers prepare to reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
While Chao is one of Trump’s least controversial Cabinet picks, there were still a few spots on her resume that had the potential to rankle Democrats, though none of the issues were brought up at her confirmation hearing.
She came under scrutiny in the past for cutting coal mine safety inspections when she ran the Labor Department and has also been criticized by organized labor over a labor dispute that closed some West Coast ports in 2002.
CNNMoney recently reported that Chao has made $1.2 million as a director at Wells Fargo, which has admitted to creating millions of fake accounts for its customers.