Dems shy away from Boeing in Commerce nominee's introduction to Senate

"And it was my experience there that ultimately led to invitations to serve on the boards of other businesses, including Disney and Boeing, where I am the longest-serving board member," he added in his only mention of the company that has led at least one Republican, Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.) to threaten to place  a hold on his nomination.

Graham and other Republicans in South Carolina and nationally are upset at the NLRB for bring a case against Boeing alleging the company decided to build a new plant there to retaliate for strikers by unionized workers at its existing facilities in Washington state.

Graham is not a member of the commerce committee, but his fellow South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint (R) does sit on the panel.

DeMint has called the lawsuit "anti-American and anti-democratic," but Tuesday, he didn't ask Bryson any questions. Instead, he said he liked Bryson but is concerned about "the people he'll be working with."

Bryson did not go out of his way to address the controversy either, saying only that "the perspective I’ve gained in the private sector is a big reason President Obama asked me to serve and brings value to the voice I will have within the Cabinet."

He focused more on his personal story, telling lawmakers of his family history and childhood upbringing.

"My father was born near Bryson City, in Appalachian North Carolina, but as a boy, the family moved west to become homesteaders in far eastern Montana," he said. "After proving up the nearly impenetrable land, however, the Montana drought of the 1920s forced another move, this time to northwestern Washington State. There my dad’s father worked briefly as a logger, only to injure himself after just a short time on the job."

"The family barely survived the injury to its breadwinner, but my dad, following high school, had the great good fortune of being given the opportunity to be the first in our family to attend college," he continued. "Trying in some small way to emulate his work ethic helped me get to where I am today."

In his own opening remarks, Commerce Committee Chairman Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W. Va.) also did not make mention of Boeing. But Rockefeller did touch on other concerns that have been raised about Bryson's nomination, including his ties to an environmental group known as the "National Resource Defense Council."

"Some have raised concerns about Mr. Bryson’s experience as a founding member of an environmental advocacy organization that has, at times, used very aggressive tactics, including suing Mr. Bryson and his company," Rockefeller said. "Others have raised concerns about his support for a 2009 proposal to cap emissions, which was a position widely held in the utility industry, but a bill I opposed.

But Rockefeller quickly added that he "had a productive and positive meeting with Mr. Bryson last week when he visited my office, and I have great respect for his desire to serve our country.

"I believe he has the capacity to restore jobs and manufacturing in America," he continued.

Bryson was introduced Tuesday by California Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D), who mentioned his service on the Boeing board. But Feinstein too steered clear of mentioning the NLRB case.

Instead, she touted his tenure at Southern California Edison.

"I first got to know John when he was CEO of Edison International, the parent company of Southern California Edison, which provides power to 14 million Californians and nearly 300,000 businesses," she said.

"As the committee will recall, in 2000 and 2001 California was gripped by an energy crisis that resulted in rolling blackouts that left millions of Californians in the dark. During that difficult time, John’s company was under siege," she continued. "I watched closely as he successfully fended off financial disaster even as other California utilities were swept into bankruptcy."

The ranking Republican on the Commerce Committee, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas), didn't shy away from mentioning Boeing, however. Hutchinson said Bryson made a "good statement about regulatory excess," but she asked him if he thought the Boeing case represented the "overreach of regulation."

"I think it’s not the right judgment," Bryson responded. "I wasn’t thinking of it so much as regulation, it seemed like such an unexpected kind of legal proceeding that none of us on the board – we thought we were doing the right thing for the country and we looked hard at maintaining the jobs in Washington and expanding the jobs elsewhere for the benefit of the country and never thought for example of putting those jobs outside the U.S."

The GOP pounced on the answer, quickly circulating the exchange to supporters on the Republican National Committee's email list.

Boeing opened its new plant in Charleston, S.C., where it plans to build 787 airplanes, this month. However, if the NLRB complaint is ultimately successful, the company could be forced to build the planes it intends to build there in Seattle.

A judge in Seattle heard the opening arguments in the case last week on a Boeing motion to dismiss.

The case is expected to last several weeks.

-- Hill reporter Vicki Needham contributed to this report.