The Senate Tuesday handily approved Elaine Chao to be the next secretary of Transportation, despite a handful of Democratic no votes amid unrest about President Donald Trump’s executive orders.
What would likely have been a unanimous vote in her favor before President Trump’s controversial travel ban ended up with six Democrats voting against her: Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.), Jeff Merkley (Ore.), Bernie Sanders (Vt.), Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), Cory Booker (N.J.) — and, most notably, Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (N.Y.). Majority Leader Mitch McConnell — Chao’s spouse — voted “present.”
On Monday, Schumer had tweeted that he would vote no on “everybody” — “DeVos – No Tillerson – No Sessions – No Mulvaney – No Price – No Mnuchin – No Pruitt – No Puzder – No.” Chao wasn’t named specifically. He also tweeted that day, “I’ll vote NO on noms who’ll be the very worst of the anti-immigrant, anti-middle class, billionaires’ club cabinet.” He hadn’t indicated that Chao was among those.
None of the senators’ offices immediately responded to requests for comment on their no vote, but they are likely protest votes about things other than Chao or her qualifications.
Other Democrats gave her a full-throated endorsement.
Sen. Tom Carper of Delaware, the top Democrat on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said he’s “pleased that, unlike many of the individuals that President Trump has nominated to the highest posts in government, Secretary Chao takes this position with a background in transportation issues and previous experience running a federal agency.” He noted his hope that Chao would be able to get bipartisan consensus in Congress to “develop a responsible infrastructure bill” that provides “real funding” to rebuild the nation’s infrastructure.
Indeed, Chao now inherits the responsibility of putting meat on the bones of Trump’s infrastructure plan, sold during his campaign as a trillion-dollar investment in the nation’s roads, bridges, airports, electric grid, schools and broadband. But GOP leaders in Congress have appeared less eager to endorse a big-spending infrastructure proposal, and have not prioritized Trump’s vision amid a host of other items such as health care.
There are also questions about just how much direct federal spending may be included in Trump’s infrastructure plan, which would be key to attracting Democrats. What few details the administration has provided so far appear to describe a plan relying mostly on tax incentives and private-sector capital. Chao said at her confirmation hearing that the infrastructure plan would likely include some direct spending, but the amount will be a subject of much debate.
Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), top Democrat on the Commerce Committee, noted Tuesday that Trump hadn’t consulted with Chao before implementing his travel ban, which caused chaos at airports around the world. Regardless, he voted in favor of her nomination.
“We need Secretary Chao as someone who has the experience and has common sense and would be in the position to offer level-headed, good experience-based advice to the government going forward,” Nelson said on the Senate floor.
Commerce Chairman John Thune (R-S.D.) said before the vote that “it would be hard to come up with a more qualified nominee” for the position at the helm of DOT than Chao, who has already served as the department’s deputy secretary, as well as secretary of Labor.