Buttigieg appears headed to confirmation as Transportation Secretary

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Pete Buttigieg

Pete Buttigieg, President Joe Biden’s nominee for Secretary of Transportation, appeared headed toward easy confirmation Thursday as senators from both parties praised him during a hearing in the U.S. Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee.

“I’m quite certain he will be confirmed,” said Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS) who was serving as chairman of the hearing only because the reorganization of the Senate with the Democrats in narrow control has not yet been enacted. Wicker’s optimism was shared by several senators from both parties, like Sen. Deb. Fisher (R-NE) who told him, “I look forward to your confirmation.”

A committee vote is not expected until next week when the record of the hearing will be closed, after which the full Senate will vote on the nomination.

Buttigieg, the former two-time mayor of South Bend, Ind., and Democratic presidential candidate, was questioned by more than 20 senators, with only three senators appearing problematic. All three asked him questions about President Biden’s immediate cancellation of a permit for the Keystone Pipeline, which they noted will eliminate 1,200 construction jobs on the pipeline and thousands more in allied industries. “What do you say to those union workers?” asked Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX).

Buttigieg said he believes the Biden administration’s green energy policies will create far more jobs than those lost by the cancellation of Keystone. “The President’s climate vision will produce many more union jobs,” he told Cruz.

Sen. Rick Scott (R-FL) asked Buttigieg whether he will support an increase in the gas tax to replenish the Highway Trust Fund. Buttigieg was noncommittal, saying the U.S. needs a short term solution to help finance needed infrastructure and give projects “predictability,” but longer term the viability of the fund is in question because of emerging trends like electric vehicles. Sen. Scott also asked Buttigieg whether he would oppose the Biden administration’s raiding of the Highway Trust Fund to support states facing budget shortfalls. Buttigieg assured him he believes the money in the fund should be used only for the purposes specifically outlined in the law.

Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO) asked whether he will support states’ rights in determining certain trucking regulations, like limits on driving hours, that may conflict with federal regulations. Buttigieg told him he “recognizes the importance of consistency and reliability” for industry oversight.

Most of the panel’s question were parried easily by Buttigieg.

Wicker asked him if he would support the resumption of funding for passenger rail service in Mississippi’s Gulf Coast. Buttigieg said he would visit Mississippi at Wicker’s invitation and discuss the project with him personally.

Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA) who will become chair of the committee under the reorganization, asked Buttigieg about whether he will support the Jones Act which ensures hundreds of thousands of jobs for U.S.-flagged vessels. Buttigieg said he does.

Under the reorganization, the Democrats will receive control of the Senate and all the committee chairs despite there being a 50-50 split in the chamber because under the constitution the vice president, in this case Kamala Harris, will break any tie votes. That means by the time the Senate votes on the Buttigieg nomination the Democrats will be in control of the Senate and its agenda.

He agreed with Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) that states and counties all across the country need federal support to maintain bridges and other critical infrastructure. He also told her, in response to her question, that he supports the use of railroad right-of-way to place broadband internet cable.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) asked Buttigieg whether he supports the Gateway Project for northeast rail, which would rebuild the 110-year-old Hudson Tunnel connecting New Jersey with New York City. Funding for the project was cancelled by the Trump administration. Buttigieg said he does support the tunnel and would like to see the project move forward.

He told Sen. Fischer the DOT needs to look closely at policies to prepare for the proliferation of automated vehicles.

Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI) asked Buttigieg what policies he may favor to help with the President’s climate change initiative. Buttigieg conceded that pre-pandemic agreements on maintenance of passenger traffic in exchange for federal funding needs to be reconsidered in light of the plunge in rail usage nationwide during the COVID-19 pandemic. “I know what these transit agencies have been through,” said Buttigieg. He also told the senator he supports the Complete Streets vision where cars, bicycles, buses and pedestrians “can coexist peacefully.”

Buttigieg told Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) he supports higher gas mileage standards for cars and trucks, which the Trump administration rolled back. “We need to be moving forward and not back. Our quality of life and the environment count on it, but it’s also important to industry.”

He also pledged to Markey he will travel to Cape Cod to visit the Bourne and Sagamore bridges residents have been calling for federal help to replace for decades.

Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-AK) asked Buttigieg about the need for roads, rural airport improvements and other transportation infrastructure in his state. Buttigieg said he would accept an invitation to visit Alaska and explore the state’s needs with the senator.

Buttigieg told Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI) he would support legislation that would set standards for safe testing and deployment of automated vehicles, which companies in Peters’ home state of Michigan are developing.

He also told Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) he would support Buy America requirements for federally funded projects.

He committed to Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT) to keep rural communities in the sights of DOT, even as the biggest grants go to big city projects, like the Hudson Tunnel.

Buttigieg received little opposition or criticism during the two-and-a-half hour hearing.

In his prepared remarks, Buttigieg told the senators, “First and foremost, I want you to know that if confirmed, I will work every day to ensure that the Department meets its mission of ensuring safety – for both travelers and workers – and I will work closely with Congress to do so. Safety is the foundation of the department’s mission, and it takes on new meaning amid this pandemic. We must ensure all of our transportation systems – from aviation to public transit, to our railways, roads, ports, waterways, and pipelines – are managed safely during this critical period, as we work to defeat the virus. We also have a lot of work to do to improve the infrastructure in this country, a mission that will not only keep more people safe, but also grow our economy as we look to the future.”

“We need to build our economy back, better than ever, and the Department of Transportation can play a central role in this, by implementing President Biden’s infrastructure vision – creating millions of good-paying jobs, revitalizing communities that have been left behind, enabling American small businesses, workers, families and farmers to compete and win in the global economy, and tackling the climate crisis,” Buttigieg said.