Senate confirms Pete Buttigieg as transport secretary

Confirmation makes him first openly gay person to serve in US Cabinet post

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell and Peter Buttigieg greet each other at the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation nomination hearings to examine the expected nomination of Pete Buttigieg to be Secretary of Transportation in Washington, DC, U.S. January 21, 2021. Ken Cedeno/Pool via REUTERS/File Photo
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Pete Buttigieg on Tuesday became the first openly gay person to be confirmed to a US Cabinet post, after winning Senate approval as Transport Secretary.

Mr Buttigieg, 39, will be have the task of advancing President Joe Biden’s ambitious agenda of rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure and fighting climate change.

Mr Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, and Mr Biden’s one-time rival during the Democratic presidential primaries, was approved on a vote of 86-13.

“I’m honoured and humbled by today’s vote in the Senate, and ready to get to work,” Mr Buttigieg tweeted.

Praised by Mr Biden as bringing a “new voice” to the administration, Mr Buttigieg takes over a Transport Department with 55,000 employees and a budget of tens of billions dollars.

He has pledged to quickly get to work promoting safety and restoring consumer trust in America’s transport networks as airlines, buses, city subway systems and Amtrak reel from the coronavirus pandemic.

Mr Buttigieg is expected to play an important role in promoting Mr Biden’s green initiatives, helping to oversee stronger car fuel standards to reduce carbon emissions and support this year a $2 trillion climate and infrastructure plan.

That will focus on rebuilding roads and bridges and expanding zero-emission mass transit, while boosting electric vehicles with 500,000 charging stations over the next decade.

"We need to build our economy back, better than ever, and the Department of Transportation can play a central role in this."

Speaking on the Senate floor before the vote, Maria Cantwell, the incoming Democrat chair of the Senate commerce committee, praised Mr Buttigieg’s energy and fresh approach.

Ms Cantwell said she looked forward to his leadership in addressing ageing infrastructure, including the “crumbling-off of bridges, delayed trains, buses, congestion, railroads or any of the many issues".

“We all know the nominee as Mayor Pete, a man who basically came on to the national stage as a Midwest mayor, who had lots of enthusiasm for making investments in America’s future.

“He’s a young, energetic mayor who is going to help us usher in a new era.”

Before approval by the full Senate, Mr Buttigieg had cleared the committee on a vote of 21-3.

Some Republican senators during his hearing indicated there would probably be fights ahead over the cost and scope of updating the nation’s roads and bridges, rails and airports.

They questioned the administration’s interest in redirecting money for climate initiatives but said they looked forward to discussions with Mr Buttigieg, including on their desired local projects.

Mr Biden has not indicated how he intends to pay for an infrastructure plan, on top of the administration's proposed $1.9 trillion virus relief plan that has met resistance in Congress.

Mr Buttigieg’s suggestion during his hearing that a gas tax rise might be needed was later retracted by his spokesman.

“We need to build our economy back better than ever," Mr Buttigieg said, adding that the Department of Transport could play a central role in this.

He said the transport sector, particularly car emissions, was the single biggest contributor in the US to global warming.

Mr Buttigieg said creating jobs, fighting the climate crisis and addressing racial and economic inequality would drive funding decisions.

The Afghanistan war veteran burst on to the national scene in 2019 after a long-shot presidential bid.

He introduced himself to voters as “Mayor Pete” and drew initial scepticism because of his youth and limited government experience.

Mr Buttigieg outperformed expectations after focusing on a message of generational change, finishing Iowa caucuses in a virtual tie with Vermont's Senator Bernie Sanders.

A Harvard graduate and Rhodes scholar, he now says his experience as a mayor and on the campaign trail were valuable to his ground-level approach to improving transport.

Mr Buttigieg initiated a “smart streets” programme to make South Bend’s downtown more friendly to pedestrians and cyclists, while spurring hundreds of millions of dollars in economic investment.

He also brings diversity to the Cabinet as the only openly gay secretary before.

Under former president Donald Trump, Richard Grenell served as acting director of national intelligence and is openly gay, but did not have to face Senate confirmation.

In the late 1990s, Senate majority leader Trent Lott blocked a confirmation vote on former president Bill Clinton’s choice for ambassador to Luxembourg, James Hormel, because of his sexual orientation.

Mr Clinton later installed Mr Hormel with a recess appointment.

“Congratulations to Secretary Pete Buttigieg on his historic confirmation,” Alphonso David, president of LGBTQ advocacy group Human Rights Campaign, said after the vote.

“This confirmation breaks through a barrier that has existed for too long, where LGBTQ identity served as an impediment to nomination or confirmation at the highest level of government."