WASHINGTON — — Thomas E. Perez, the former Maryland labor secretary nominated to lead the U.S. Department of Labor, faced pointed questions at his Senate confirmation hearing Thursday about whether politics influenced his decisions as the top civil rights attorney in the U.S. Justice Department.
But the 51-year-old Takoma Park man, nominated last month by President Barack Obama, focused his testimony largely on the economy, faced questions on only a fraction of concerns Republicans have raised in recent weeks, and made no obvious missteps during the two-hour hearing.
"We can all agree on the need to create jobs and strengthen the middle class," said Perez, the only Hispanic named by Obama to his second-term Cabinet. "I've always tried to listen more than I talk, to approach contentious issues with an open mind."
The longtime civil rights lawyer has been dogged by questions about litigation he oversaw as assistant attorney general and head of the department's Civil Rights Division, a position he has held since 2009. Congressional Republicans demanded more information from Perez on Thursday, including personal emails in which he conducted department business.
But Democrats, apparently confident of Perez's chances, said they expect to hold a committee vote on his confirmation next week.
Republicans, who raised a range of concerns when Perez was nominated, largely narrowed their criticism Thursday to a deal he brokered last year.
The Justice Department agreed to back out of a lawsuit filed against the city of St. Paul, Minn., if city leaders dropped a separate case Perez was concerned could have resulted in an adverse Supreme Court ruling.
"That seems to me to be an extraordinary amount of wheeling and dealing outside the normal responsibilities of the assistant attorney general for civil rights," said Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, the top-ranking Republican on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. "You are manipulating the legal process to try to get the result you want in the Supreme Court in a way that seems inappropriate."
Perez acknowledges that he intervened in the case, which began when landlords sued the city over a crackdown of code violations. He was concerned that the Supreme Court might set a precedent that would weaken a legal theory that holds a practice is discriminatory if it has a disproportionate impact on minorities — even if discrimination was not intended.
The city agreed to drop its lawsuit, allowing the landlords to win. The Justice Department, in return, backed out of a case in which a whistle-blower alleged that the city had received millions of dollars in federal funding by improperly certifying compliance with federal law.
In a 64-page report released days before the hearing, Republicans said the federal government could have recovered $200 million in misspent taxpayer funds if the Justice Department had pursued the case.
Perez pointed out that the money would have been recovered only if the government had won — and he said career attorneys at the department had concluded that that would have been a tall order.
He also said he cleared the decision to trade one case for the other with ethics officials at the Justice Department.
"I believe that the resolutions reached in this case were in fact in the interest of justice," Perez said.
Sen. Tim Scott, a South Carolina Republican, asked Perez about a controversial voter intimidation case involving the New Black Panther Party in Philadelphia.
Conservatives have long cried foul over the department's decision under Obama to dismiss several defendants in that case, even as it pursued other voting rights litigation.
Last month, an inspector general's report found that Perez gave incomplete testimony about the decision to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, but the investigation found no evidence that Perez intentionally misled the panel.
Sen. David Vitter is not a member of the labor committee but has been among Perez's most outspoken critics on the issue. The Louisiana Republican reiterated on Thursday that he intends to force a 60-vote threshold for Perez's confirmation on the Senate floor.
The Justice Department "continues to waffle around picking and choosing which part of the National Voter Registration Act to enforce," he said in a statement. "I'm still extremely suspicious of Thomas Perez's record."
Before the hearing, some expected that critics on the committee would subject Perez to an aggressive cross-examination. But he faced only a handful of tough questions, and the relatively brief session lacked the tension or the drama that defined Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel's confirmation hearing in January, for instance.
The Democratic-led Senate has confirmed all of Obama's second-term Cabinet nominees to come to a vote.
Perez's confirmation comes at a politically sensitive moment for Republicans, who have been eager to court Hispanic voters after most flocked to Democrats in the 2012 election. Latino groups have strongly backed Perez to lead the Labor Department.
Perez is not new to confirmation battles. GOP lawmakers delayed a confirmation vote for his current position at the Justice Department for more than six months in 2009, raising many of the same concerns. He ultimately received a bipartisan vote of 72-22.
Perez, who in 2002 became the first Latino to win a seat on the Montgomery County Council, launched a brief run for Maryland attorney general in 2006. He was knocked off the ballot by the state Court of Appeals, which found he lacked the 10 years' legal experience in Maryland required by the state constitution.
Gov. Martin O'Malley then picked Perez to serve as the state's labor secretary, a job Perez held from 2007 until 2009.
In Maryland, Perez used the labor department to implement regulations aimed at stemming the foreclosure crisis.
He pushed to shift oversight of adult education programs to his agency, a move that led to a turf battle with state education officials. And he beefed up enforcement of the state's minimum wage law.
If confirmed, Perez would take over the Labor Department at an important time. The department will be a key player in the administration's plan to overhaul the nation's immigration laws, an effort that has gained momentum on Capitol Hill. Obama has also proposed raising the minimum wage.
The Harvard-educated native of Buffalo, N.Y., said he would make job creation a top priority at the department, along with enforcing wage and workplace safety laws and reauthorizing federal job training programs. He repeatedly said he would keep an open mind on controversial issues.
"We believe he is the right man for the job," said Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat and member of the labor committee. "Tom grew up with public service in his DNA."