Five takeaways from Chao’s confirmation hearing

Five takeaways from Chao’s confirmation hearing
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Elaine Chao showcased her personal and political ties to Capitol Hill as she cruised through her Senate confirmation hearing on Wednesday.

Chao, whom President-elect Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpForget the spin: Five unrefuted Mueller Report revelations Lara Trump: Merkel admitting migrants 'one of the worst things that ever happened to Germany' Financial satisfaction hits record high: survey MORE tapped to lead the Transportation Department, has experience serving under two Republican administrations; she is also married to Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellElection agency limps into 2020 cycle The Hill's Morning Report - Will Joe Biden's unifying strategy work? Dems charge ahead on immigration MORE (R-Ky.).

Chao’s cozy reception – which was marked by compliments, jokes and a glowing introduction from her husband – came during an otherwise explosive day on Capitol Hill. In a nearby committee room, another Senate panel was grilling Trump’s secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson.

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Chao used her three hours before the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee to outline some of her main transportation priorities, including infrastructure spending, safety regulations and self-driving cars.

But she remained light on details about many of her policy ideas, instead pledging to work closely with Congress on transportation issues after she is confirmed.

Here are five takeaways from her time in the spotlight:

 

Chao is on the fast track

Senators noted that Congress has confirmed Chao four times previously, without a single dissenting vote on the Senate floor. She has served as Labor secretary, deuty Transportation secretary, Federal Maritime Commission chairwoman and deputy Maritime administrator.

And after Wednesday’s hearing, there is little doubt that Chao is once again on the fast track to a breezy confirmation.

“Most members are delighted,” said Sen. Roger WickerRoger Frederick WickerWe can accelerate a cure for Alzheimer's Senate panel opens investigation of FAA safety inspectors FAA faces questions about Boeing at two hearings MORE (R-Miss.). “I think you’ll be confirmed with a nice, bipartisan vote.”

She received effusive praise from both sides of the aisle, with several lawmakers pointing to the personal relationships they have with Chao.

Sen. Bill NelsonClarence (Bill) William NelsonTrump administration renews interest in Florida offshore drilling: report Dem reps say they were denied access to immigrant detention center Ex-House Intel chair: Intel panel is wrong forum to investigate Trump's finances MORE of Florida, the ranking Democrat on the panel, said his wife and Chao are the “dearest of friends.”

“I have watched you as you have comported yourself in a previous administration as a Cabinet member, and it has been with grace and excellence that you have done so,” Nelson said. “I certainly look forward to you in this new administration doing the same.”

And having the support of the Senate’s top Republican doesn’t hurt, either.

“The nominee before us is well-qualified, incredibly capable, and she's got really great judgment … on a whole variety of things," McConnell said to a packed Dirksen committee hearing room, which erupted in laughter.

 

Democrats pulled their punches

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.

She came under scrutiny 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, a financial institution that has admitted to creating millions of fake accounts for its customers.

But none of those subjects were brought up Wednesday, as Democrats largely held their fire.

 

Trump may be open to federal spending on transportation

In one of the more surprising moments of the hearing, Chao signaled that the incoming administration would be supportive of direct federal spending on transportation.

“I believe the answer is yes,” Chao said when pressed by Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) on the issue.

Trump has long promised to rebuild the nation’s crumbling infrastructure, but so far has only floated a $1 trillion package that relies solely on private companies to back transportation projects.

Fiscal conservatives have been reluctant to support massive federal spending on infrastructure. Instead, Republicans prefer to use private-sector dollars to address the country’s transportation needs.

Chao echoed Trump’s calls for getting more private capital off the sidelines, but also emphasized that it will likely take a mix of public and private funding to make headway.

“We look forward to working with you to explore all the options, and to create a mix of practical solutions — both public and private — that provide the greatest cost-benefit to the public,” she said.

 

Chao punted on air traffic control spin-off

Senators pressed Chao on whether she agrees with a contentious proposal to separate air traffic control from the federal government.

But even though Chao voiced support for modernizing the country’s aviation system, she said the incoming administration “has not made a decision on this point.”

“This is a huge issue, it needs national consensus, there needs to be a dialogue,” Chao said. “I expect that, come Jan. 20, this will be one of the issues in which the White House will have some say.”

Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, is once again preparing to introduce a proposal to transfer air traffic control operations from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to a not-for-profit corporation.

The plan is largely opposed by Democrats and GOP tax writers and appropriators in the Senate.

Trump has not specifically spoken out about air traffic control, but he has long talked about the need to modernize the country’s “third-world airports,” raising hopes by proponents of privatization that he may have a sympathetic ear on the issue.

“We’re going to talk to [the administration], make sure they’re comfortable, they understand it,” Shuster said. “The goal is to try to do as much as we can, but we want to move together with the administration.”

 

Trump, House GOP may clash on ‘Buy American’

Chao committed to fulfill Trump’s promise to buy and hire American, even though she has expressed opposition to such polices in the past.

“The president has made very clear his position on this,” Chao said. “Of course all Cabinet members will follow his policy.”

But that means the Trump administration and House GOP could be headed for a collision course.

Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanAppeals court rules House chaplain can reject secular prayers FEC filing: No individuals donated to indicted GOP rep this cycle The Hill's Morning Report - Waiting on Mueller: Answers come on Thursday MORE (R-Wis.) dropped a so-called Buy America provision from a waterways bill last year that would have required American steel and iron to be used in certain drinking water projects.

Critics of the steel provision worried that directing federal funding to some companies over others would create an unfair system of winners and losers.

But some note that Ryan's opposition to the language is directly at odds with Trump’s promise to support American manufacturers and create jobs for the middle class.

“Their position against Buy America is at stark odds with the president elect, who has repeatedly pledged two rules for rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure: Buy American, and hire American,” pointed out Sen. Tammy BaldwinTammy Suzanne BaldwinOnly four Dem senators have endorsed 2020 candidates Democratic proposals to overhaul health care: A 2020 primer More than 30 Senate Dems ask Trump to reconsider Central American aid cuts MORE (D-Wis.).