Thursday, January 25, 2001

Elaine Chao, nominated by President Bush to be labor secretary, avoided saying she supported controversial new Occupational Safety and Health Administration rules during questioning in the Senate yesterday.

Mrs. Chao testified before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee during her confirmation hearing.

The new OSHA rules took effect last week. Labor unions say the rules will protect employees from repetitive strain and other work-related injuries and save employers billions of dollars in lost work time. Business groups contend the rules will be financially crippling. They have urged the Bush administration and the Republican-controlled Congress to reverse them.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, who played a key role in getting the rules implemented, asked her twice whether she supported the rules and would enforce them.

Mrs. Chao said she would enforce the laws in effect if she becomes labor secretary but did not specifically say she supported the new OSHA ergonomics rules.

“It’s a very complicated issue,” Mrs. Chao said.

She also said she would “give this issue the greatest thought.”

She added, “This is probably the most visible issue in the department.”

She hinted, under questioning by Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, New York Democrat, that she believed the new OSHA rules might be too restrictive.

“OSHA needs to take more care with helping companies on the preventative side,” Mrs. Chao said.

Like the former first lady, Mrs. Chao is politically connected via her husband, Sen. Mitch McConnell. The Kentucky Republican introduced her to the committee during the three-hour hearing.

Mr. Kennedy assured Mrs. Chao at the end of the hearing that he expected an “overwhelmingly favorable” response in Congress to her nomination.

Mrs. Chao is President Bush’s second choice for the job. He turned to the former Peace Corps director when conservative commentator Linda Chavez withdrew her name after it was disclosed that she housed and paid an illegal immigrant to do housework for her.

Labor, Hispanic and other liberal interest groups opposed Mrs. Chvez because of her conservative, pro-business stances. Mrs. Chao, however, generally is supported by those groups, despite her limited background with labor policy.

Mrs. Chao told the senators that job training for high-tech industries was “perhaps the greatest challenge faced by the Department of Labor.”

During the hearing, she held up a list of unfilled high-tech jobs in the United States. “In America today, there are tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of high-tech jobs that cannot be filled, while at the same time there are millions of Americans who cannot currently fill them,” Mrs. Chao said. “That, I believe, is one of the supreme challenges this Labor Department faces on the threshold of the new millennium.”

It was not clear, however, when the Senate would vote on Mrs. Chao. A committee spokesman said the panel had yet to receive all the paperwork from the White House on her nomination.

Senators from both parties spent nearly an hour welcoming Mrs. Chao and praising her for living the kind of life they said was an example of the American dream.

Mrs. Chao was questioned about increasing the $5.15 hourly federal minimum wage by $1. Mr. Bush has said he favors the increase, but only if states are allowed to opt out.

“The president’s position on the minimum wage is that it should be increased,” Mrs. Chao said. “I support that.”

Questioned about a proposed patients’ bill of rights, which Congress couldn’t agree on last year, Mrs. Chao said only that she would enforce any provision of such a law that is assigned to her department.

“I wish I could draft a strong patients’ bill of rights,” she said.

She also said she supported President Bush’s proposed New Freedom Initiative, a program to make employment more accessible to disabled persons through technology. It would include research and development of new technologies and greater opportunities for telecommuting.

“We need to make sure disabled Americans take advantage of these new engines,” Mrs. Chao said.

Mr. Bush announced Mrs. Chao’s selection Jan. 11, two days after Mrs. Chavez’s withdrawal.

Mrs. Chao, a native of Taiwan, “believes deeply in the American dream because she has lived it,” the president said then, noting that she came to America at age 8 speaking no English.

Mrs. Chao, 47, served as deputy secretary of transportation in the administration of former President George Bush before becoming Peace Corps director in 1991. As president of United Way of America from 1992 until 1996, she helped the charity recover from a financial scandal. She currently is a fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington.

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