PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Gov. Gina Raimondo on Tuesday received a generally friendly reception from senators vetting her nomination to be the nation’s next commerce secretary, putting her on track to quickly win confirmation to join President Biden’s cabinet.
The U.S. Senate Commerce Committee questioned Raimondo for about two-and-a-half hours during a confirmation hearing that began at 10 a.m. Raimondo as well as some senators appeared virtually and at times struggled with their connections due to a reported internet outage up and down the East Coast.
“At its heart, the Commerce Department is about opportunity — the opportunity to start or grow a business, the opportunity to get a good and stable job, the opportunity to pursue the American dream regardless of where you live,” Raimondo said in her opening remarks.
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Mississippi Republican Roger Wicker, the committee’s chairman, set the tone at the outset when he described an eventual vote to confirm Raimondo for the job as something “which I expect will certainly occur.” He said she “will bring a valuable perspective to the department regarding the economic challenges that face our nation.”
Wicker reiterated his positive impression of Raimondo at the end of the hearing, thanking the 49-year-old for being “patient and most talented” in her testimony on issues that ranged from broadband spectrum and intercontinental data-sharing to weather forecasts.
“I do not believe you will be serving as governor of the state of Rhode Island for very much longer, and I wish you well,” Wicker said. “I look forward to working with you.”
The committee has not yet scheduled a vote to send Raimondo’s nomination to the Senate floor, but it’s possible that could happen as soon as next week. She will then need to be voted on by the full Senate, which at the moment is bracing for an overall time crunch due to the looming impeachment trial of former President Trump.
Lt. Gov. Dan McKee, a second-term Democrat, will succeed Raimondo as Rhode Island’s governor if and when she is confirmed. McKee plans to keep all of Raimondo’s cabinet directors initially to ensure continuity amid the pandemic, though some are expected to depart soon for other opportunities, a source involved with his transition team said Tuesday.
As commerce secretary, Raimondo would oversee a federal department with over 46,000 employees and an annual budget that totals $11.8 billion this fiscal year. Its biggest agencies are the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — which includes the National Weather Service — and the U.S. Census Bureau.
Raimondo was introduced by Rhode Island’s two U.S. senators, Democrats Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse. Both offered fulsome praise, with Reed relating the oft-told story of how he wound up babysitting the future governor in 1971 when their families had neighboring beach cottages in Narragansett and he was home from West Point.
Whitehouse said he couldn’t match Reed in claiming to have known Raimondo since she was in diapers, but told the committee, “I am very confident that my colleagues will like working with Secretary Raimondo.”
Minnesota Democrat Amy Klobuchar later told Raimondo that while the Senate often hears warm introductions for nominees from home-state senators, the comments from Reed and Whitehouse stood out as “incredibly heartfelt and a tribute to you.”
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During the hearing, Democratic and Republican senators focused the vast majority of their questions on the priorities they think Raimondo should embrace while leading the Commerce Department, particularly around oceans, fisheries and climate change because of NOAA. Nearly all of them indicated they had spoken with Raimondo prior to the hearing.
As is customary, many senators highlighted concerns specific to their own states. Michigan Democrat Gary Peters, for example, noted the challenges facing his state’s cherry industry — and said he was pleased when he learned that Raimondo’s husband, Andy Moffit, is a Michigan native. (She further ingratiated herself with Peters by saying she makes Moffit a cherry cake for his birthday each year.)
Senators from two of Rhode Island’s neighboring states — Democrats Ed Markey of Massachusetts and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut — both said they were pleased to see a fellow New Englander in line to lead the Commerce Department.
Markey asked her to consider adding more NOAA jobs in New Bedford, the nation’s top fishing port, a focus that won immediate praise from Mayor Jon Mitchell. “If you want to promote dialog between regulators and the regulated, put them in the same place,” Mitchell tweeted, noting New Bedford has over two-thirds of the Bay State’s fish landings but only 2% of NOAA’s employees in the state.
Markey told 12 News on Tuesday he hopes Raimondo’s confirmation will move forward “very quickly” so she can be in place prior to the start of the impeachment trial on Feb. 8.
“I don’t expect there to be a lot of controversy around the governor’s nomination,” he said. “My hope is that we could get it done, and I’m going to be trying to expedite the process so we can complete it before we begin the impeachment trial of Donald Trump.”
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Texas Republican Ted Cruz was one of the few senators who asked pointed questions about Raimondo’s own record, questioning why the governor of a state that has repeatedly been ranked 50th in the country for its business climate by CNBC should lead a department charged with promoting economic development.
Raimondo defended her record, saying Rhode Island had added thousands of jobs under her watch prior to the pandemic. “I will look forward to fighting for the American worker should I be confirmed,” she said.
Cruz also expressed concern about how China policy will change under the new president. “I will say there’s chatter in Washington that the Biden administration is contemplating going easy on China and removing companies from the Entities List – I certainly hope that doesn’t happen because I think that would be profoundly contrary to the national security interest of the United States.”
In response to another Cruz question, regarding what specific statute allowed for a Biden initiative on climate change, Raimondo acknowledged, “That is a question I am not certain of.”
The Republican National Committee released its own criticism of Raimondo as the hearing was beginning, lashing her over her campaign contributors, the 2011 pension overhaul and her management of the R.I. Department of Children, Youth and Families, among other issues.
“Raimondo’s record as governor has been ruinous for the people of Rhode Island,” argued Tommy Pigott, the RNC’s rapid response director, in a statement. “We should not bring that record to Washington, D.C.”
Other Republican senators with pointed questions included Wisconsin’s Ron Johnson, who pressed Raimondo on whether she thinks Big Tech companies need to be more heavily regulated. She agreed with his concern, saying, “I see it in my own state — misinformation hurts people.” But like other thorny topics, she offered only a vague promise to collaborate and listen.
Florida Republican Rick Scott pushed Raimondo on her December signing of a Transportation Climate Initiative agreement with the governors of Massachusetts and Connecticut that is aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions by charging distributors of products that contribute to the problem. But even Scott, a former Florida governor, had a kind word for Raimondo, too.
“I think it’s positive when you see a governor come up and serve in an administration,” he said.
Ted Nesi (email@example.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter and 12 News politics/business editor. He co-hosts Newsmakers and writes Nesi’s Notes on Saturdays. Connect with him on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Instagram