WASHINGTON — Pete Buttigieg made a pitch Thursday to senators weighing his nomination to become President Biden’s transportation secretary, delivering a wide-ranging performance that drew praise from Democrats and Republicans alike.
Winning the job would continue the rapid rise of the 39-year-old former mayor of South Bend, Ind., who amassed supporters in the Democratic presidential primaries before dropping out and endorsing Biden. In the span of two and a half hours Thursday, Buttigieg advanced the case for Biden’s climate change agenda and an infusion of money to rebuild the nation’s transportation infrastructure.
Buttigieg pointed to a “bipartisan appetite for a generational opportunity to transform and improve America’s infrastructure.” He also said that “good transportation policy can play no less a role than making possible the American Dream,” by moving people and goods while also generating jobs.
“But I also recognize that at their worst, misguided policies and missed opportunities in transportation can reinforce racial and economic inequality, by dividing or isolating neighborhoods and undermining government’s basic role of empowering Americans to thrive,” he said.
The hearing was chaired by the Commerce Committee’s Senator Roger Wicker, Republican of Mississippi, who holds the gavel while both parties work out a power-sharing agreement in the 50-50 split Senate. Wicker said Buttigieg was almost certain to win confirmation.
“Mayor Buttigieg has impressive credentials that demonstrate his intellect and commitment to serving our nation,” Wicker said.
Buttigieg would bring the profile he garnered during the campaign to his new job. Biden has framed the transportation role as a significant part of the nation’s recovery from the coronavirus pandemic and the rebuilding of the economy.
Buttigieg also stands to make history: He would become the first openly gay member of a Cabinet to be confirmed by the Senate. At the beginning of his remarks, he turned back to look at his husband, Chasten Buttigieg.
“I’m really proud to have him by my side,” Pete Buttigieg said.
The couple attended Biden’s swearing-in at the Capitol, along with Elaine Chao, whom Buttigieg would follow as transportation secretary. Buttigieg bracketed Inauguration Day with appearances as a spirited booster for his new boss and the Biden agenda, offering a sense of the potential contours of his new role.
Starting before sunrise Wednesday, Buttigieg pivoted from “Morning Joe” co-host Mika Brzezinski’s question on the previous administration to offer framing of a hopeful future. Once the sun “goes down tonight over the Lincoln Memorial, it will be setting over a different Washington with different leadership,” Buttigieg said.
Later, he was on “The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon.”
Buttigieg, who turned 39 on Tuesday, would be the youngest person to serve as transportation secretary. The job involves overseeing billions of dollars in highway construction funds, tens of thousands of air traffic controllers, and ensuring the safety of everything from jet planes to pipelines. The department’s budget is far bigger than South Bend’s and employs more than 58,000 people — about half the population of the Indiana city.
The pandemic will add to those challenges.
“Safety is the foundation of the department’s mission, and it takes on new meaning amid this pandemic,” Buttigieg said. Biden signed an order Thursday requiring mask usage in airports and on many planes, trains, ships, and intercity buses — a break from the Trump administration.
The job would offer a political opportunity to Buttigieg, a star in the Democratic Party who effectively had no path upward in Republican-dominated Indiana. The billions of dollars at the department’s disposal touch every part of the country, and several senators invited him to pay visits to their states to look at projects. He would also have an opportunity to make progress on climate change and racial justice.
Transportation is the nation’s biggest producer of greenhouse gases, and cutting them is one of the new administration’s top priorities. On Wednesday, Biden ordered the Environmental Protection Agency and Transportation Department to work toward tightening emissions rules for cars and SUVs after they had been weakened by Donald Trump.
While the hearing was mostly convivial, there were moments that underscored a partisan split on the environment.
Republican Senators Dan Sullivan of Alaska and Ted Cruz of Texas challenged Buttigieg over an order Biden signed Wednesday halting construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline. The project’s supporters say the order will cost thousands of jobs.
Buttigieg said the administration’s climate agenda ultimately will create jobs and stressed the importance of curbing the use of fossil fuels.
“When the books are written about our careers, one of the main things we’ll be judged on is whether we did enough to stop the destruction of life and property due to climate change,” he said.
Buttigieg is likely to play a significant role on infrastructure, advocating for the administration on Capitol Hill, and helping to direct the spending of any new funds.
In his remarks Thursday, Buttigieg described the reach of 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.”
A bill authorizing federal highway and transit programs expires at the end of the year, and Democrats are hoping to use the opportunity to steer transportation funding in more environmentally friendly directions. In both chambers, though, the party narrowly holds control, which could limit lawmakers’ ambitions. While leaders of both parties say they support an increase in spending, there are significant divisions over how the money could best be used - and how to raise the funds.
“Transportation infrastructure investment around here has always been an area for bipartisan cooperation,” said Senator John Thune, Republican of South Dakota, “The other thing that enjoys bipartisan popularity around here is not paying for it.”
Buttigieg’s team walked back a comment he made after being asked directly by Senator Rick Scott, Republican of Florida, whether he supports an increase in the gas tax. At the hearing, Buttigieg said options to cover the costs of transportation spending “could include revisiting the gas tax, adjusting it, and/or connecting it to inflation.”
But after the hearing, a Buttigieg spokesman ruled out supporting an increase in the gas tax, saying a “variety of options need to be on the table to ensure we can invest in our highways and create jobs, but increasing the gas tax is not among them.”