Ex-Labor chief sworn in as transportation secretary

Keith Laing
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — President Donald Trump’s pick to run the U.S. Department of Transportation was approved by the U.S. Senate on Tuesday, giving the new president a win amid grumbling from congressional Democrats about several of his other Cabinet choices.

Trump’s choice of former U.S. Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, 63, to lead the transportation department in his administration was approved by the U.S. Senate on an 93-6 vote. Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. and Cory Booker, D-N.J., voted against Chao’s nomination.

Chao was sworn in during a swiftly arranged ceremony at the transportation headquarters in Washington that was officiated by Vice President Mike Pence.

“President Trump and I are appreciative that once again you have answered the call to serve America and advance the interests of the people of this country,” Pence said. “Your leadership and your experience will serve us well as the secretary of transportation, overseeing what we anticipate will be historic investment in our nation's roads, bridges, airports and above all in our future.”

Chao tweeted from a newly established Twitter account after the ceremony: “It is an honor to rejoin the extraordinary people of @USDOT and begin working to rebuild America's infrastructure.”

The former Labor chief’s selection was seen as one of Trump’s least controversial Cabinet picks, drawing praise from lawmakers in both parties during Tuesday’s vote.

“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., who is chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, said during the Senate’s debate on Chao’s nomination.

“She certainly has the qualifications to be our next Secretary of Transportation,” Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., who is the top ranking Democrat on the panel, added.

The White House has chided Senate Democrats for opposing several of Trump’s more controversial nominees, including west Michigan GOP mega donor and philanthropist Betsy DeVos to be his education secretary and Detroit native Ben Carson to lead the Housing and Urban Development. The White House noted this week that as of Monday, 17 of Trump’s “nominees to head major departments or agencies” were still waiting to be confirmed. That count included Chao, who has now been confirmed by the upper chamber with the vote on Tuesday.

With the successful confirmation, Chao now becomes U.S. Secretary of Transportation at a time when federal regulators are scrambling to craft new rules for self-driving cars as automakers and tech companies race to develop the new technology.

The transportation department under Chao will also be involved in a review of federally mandated fuel economy standards that have emerged as hot-button issue early in the Trump’s tenure in office. Automakers have been pushing the Trump administration to roll back a mandate from the Obama administration that requires them to achieve a fleetwide average of 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025. The Obama administration moved quickly to finalize the rules ahead of schedule before the former president left office, over the objection of automakers.

When Chao was asked about the mileage rules in a confirmation hearing on Jan. 11, she said she is looking forward to reviewing the work that has preceded her on the regulations.

“This issue is going to be coming up,” she said in response to a question from U.S. Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass. “It is going to be an important one for the department, and before I comment I would like to do so responsibly and I would like to get up-to-date briefings of what’s happening in the department. Again, I look forward to so soliciting your points of view and working with you as we go forward.”

Chao, who is married to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., led the Labor Department for the full eight years President George W. Bush was in office. She formerly was deputy U.S. Secretary of Transportation and chairwoman of the Federal Maritime Commission.

She has also been chief executive officer of United Way of America and director of the Peace Corps. She worked as vice president of syndications at BankAmerica Capital Markets Group and as a banker with Citicorp in New York.


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Twitter: @Keith_Laing