It’s been a long four months since President Joe Biden nominated Julie Su, a staunchly pro-labor progressive, to serve as secretary of the Department of Labor.
But in the Senate, those four months have felt even longer: a vote to confirm Su has yet to be scheduled. Key Democrats are withholding their support. Republicans are pressuring Biden to just withdraw the nomination.
Now, as July approaches, Su’s prospects are looking even more grim.
Ahead of a two-week recess, Senate Democrats have no updates on when they’ll finally vote on Su’s nomination. A handful of Democratic moderates have still not voiced support for Su, even after months of the White House and Senate leadership lobbying for her. With no end in sight, some senators are growing antsy to just get it over with.
“I hope we just schedule it because there’s a phenomenon around here that, if I can remain unclear about what I’m going to do, I can push something down the road,” Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) told The Daily Beast. “But as soon as there’s a date, and I have to decide, I think we’re in a situation where the absence of a date is enabling some just not to decide yet.”
“I can’t predict what other people will do,” Kaine continued. “But I do know this: Keeping it just hanging out there is good for nobody—not for the country, not for her.”
At least three senators have refused to publicly say how they’ll vote: Sens. Jon Tester (D-MT), Kyrsten Sinema (I-AZ) and Joe Manchin (D-WV).
With Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and dozens of GOP senators vocally opposing Su, GOP moderates like Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) have stayed mum on their positions, making clear that Democratic votes will make or break the nomination.
As of Wednesday, Democratic fence-sitters still hadn’t given any more indication of where they stand, leaving a murky path for party leaders to move forward upon.
Manchin brushed aside the delay in a vote on Su, telling The Daily Beast he has “no idea” when they’ll move forward. “I’m not in control of that,” he said. “You’ll have to talk to the people that have control.” (Axios has reported that Manchin has told the White House he is opposed to Su’s nomination.)
“I just think that basically, they’ve got to get 51 votes, or 50 votes, or whatever, so they’ve gotta work on that,” Manchin said.
Tester may not have indicated his stance—but he still wants to get the whole thing over with anyway.
Asked if he wants the Senate to get a move on Su’s nomination, Tester said he would “love to.”
“But you know why? Because then you guys would never have to ask me again how I was going to vote on Julie Su,” he said. Tester told another reporter he’s not announced his decision because there’s still time for him to receive more input.
That may be an indication that Tester would vote for her if his vote were decisive, but other senators also seem to be playing that game—or are just flat-out opposed.
Sinema has remained characteristically tight-lipped with the press about her intentions on Su. The Daily Beast asked Sinema in April how she would vote on Su. She didn’t respond.
A spokesperson for Sinema also did not respond to an email Wednesday inquiring if there were any updates.
To be sure, the overwhelming majority of Senate Democrats support Su, as do labor leaders. Plenty of senators said they’re hoping a vote can come sooner than later. They think she’s perfectly capable of doing the job and would make a fine Labor Secretary. Several Democrats noted that Su is currently serving as acting secretary and is, in fact, already doing the job.
"Julie Su is highly qualified to be Labor Secretary, recently helped secure a labor agreement at the West Coast ports, was unanimously confirmed as Deputy Secretary of Labor by all Senate Democrats, and has support from business and labor groups across the spectrum,” said White House Deputy Press Secretary Emilie Simons.
But Su, who has long been championed by progressives and labor unions, has attracted the ire of business groups and the right, where deep-pocketed groups are putting pressure on senators to reject her nomination. Given that Manchin, Sinema, and Tester could face difficult elections next year, that pressure could be very persuasive.
For Biden, the stakes are high. He has made a case for himself as the most pro-organized labor president in generations, and the Department of Labor is a key cabinet post for advancing his policies. If Su’s nomination withers, it could be a blow to his labor agenda.
Beyond that, a failure to confirm Su would certainly be a hit to the perception of Biden’s juice on Capitol Hill. In his presidency so far, he has only withdrawn one Cabinet-level nominee, Neera Tanden, his initial pick to lead the Office of Management and Budget. It would also likely pour some cold water on progressives’ ambitions to expand their influence at the high echelons of the Biden administration.
Indeed, Su was previously Deputy Labor Secretary under Marty Walsh—a Bostonian union leader who some senators saw as a more moderate option over Su when Biden was making his first round of picks for the job. After Walsh resigned earlier this year to lead the National Hockey League’s players’ association, Su took over as acting labor secretary while her nomination was pending.
In an interview with The Daily Beast in April, Walsh voiced his support for Su as a successor. But those sentiments from Walsh and others haven’t appeared to alleviate fears from moderates.
“We haven’t acted on her nomination for a reason,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT). “It’s not because we're prioritizing district judges ahead of the Secretary of Labor. It’s because we still have work to do to confidently have 50-plus votes.”
Manchin, Sinema, and Tester all also have one thing in common: They’re facing tough re-elections next year in battleground states.
Tester has already launched his 2024 campaign. Sinema and Manchin have not announced their 2024 plans yet, but some conservative groups have been mounting pressure campaigns in their home states, urging voters to oppose the nominations.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, who has the power to schedule floor votes, did not directly address a question during a press conference Wednesday on whether Su will get a vote. He left it at “she is a very good nominee and we are working hard to get her confirmed.”
A handful of fellow Democrats shrugged off the delay, noting it's not in their hands.
“I’ll let others figure out what the timing of that is. But she is a superlative nominee—as qualified as anyone who’s ever held that job—and she should be confirmed,” said Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA), a member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee that advanced Su’s nomination for consideration in the full Senate.
“I am hoping to see a vote sometime soon. I think the biggest consideration right now is having full attendance,” said Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI). After The Daily Beast noted Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), the primary absence among Senate Democrats this term, has returned, Baldwin said, “I know that there was some hopefulness that, you know, as soon as possible.”
While Biden has been able to count on Republican support for a handful of his nominees, including Walsh, that doesn’t seem in the cards for him here. Su was confirmed to the deputy spot by a party-line vote. A group of 33 Republican senators on Tuesday also wrote a letter to Biden calling on him to withdraw the nomination.
Despite the signs for concern, some Democrats are still expressing optimism that Biden will confirm a top progressive for a key position.
“There are occasionally nominations that take a little bit longer to land,” Murphy said. “This is a really important one. She’s in an acting capacity. She’s doing the job, doing it well. That probably decreases a little bit of the urgency to have a vote, but hopefully we’ll be able to quickly.”