Mayor Pete soon Secretary Pete? Bipartisan senators say yes

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Pete Buttigieg, displaying the political acumen that fueled his surge from mayoral obscurity to political stardom, sailed through a Senate hearing Thursday that was every bit an audition for a potential future presidential turn as it was for his impending role as Transportation secretary.

Buttigieg, President Joe Biden’s pick to head the Department of Transportation, easily fielded wonky questions about policy arcana from both Republicans and Democrats on the Senate Commerce Committee — aside from one stumble on a question about whether he’d consider raising the federal gasoline tax. He also appealed to rural state senators, drawing often on his experience leading a small city in the heartland without the kinds of resources big coastal cities enjoy.

“I recognize, especially coming from a community of the size of South Bend … we’re not among those that were able to have a full-time staff working on federal relations,“ Buttigieg said, referencing the cumbersome process for federal grant programs.

His reception at Thursday’s hearing suggests an easy road to confirmation, with the committee‘s top Republican, Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi, saying he’s “quite certain he will be confirmed.” Other GOP plaudits followed, including Sen. Todd Young of Indiana who said he “a great deal of respect” for the nominee from his home state.

“You have put on a clinic for how a nominee should… act,” said Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.). “You haven’t avoided the questions. You’ve been straightforward. And you know what the hell you’re talking about.”

“That’s pretty damn refreshing,” Tester added.

Buttigieg’s maiden outing in the Senate can be seen as the kickoff to a potential future run at the presidency, which will play out in the background of virtually everything he does as a member of President Joe Biden’s Cabinet. And though most Americans would view DOT as a sleepy agency, it will enjoy a higher profile under Biden, who has promised to elevate climate concerns among every arm of government.

Despite his warm reception, Buttigieg did end up tripping up on the perpetual political landmine of the federal gas tax. Congress hasn’t increased the tax since 1993, leading to growing shortfalls in the Highway Trust Fund that lawmakers have had to fill with deficit spending.

During the hearing, under questioning about how to fund America’s infrastructure, Buttigieg said that "all options need to be on the table" — though he added that with the spread of fuel-efficient and electric cars, "sooner or later there will be questions about whether the gas tax can be effective at all."

Afterward, a Buttigieg spokesperson told reporters that while a “variety of options need to be on the table … increasing the gas tax is not among them.”

In speaking about climate change, Buttigieg said DOT has “a big part” to play in Biden’s “whole of government approach” to slowing its advance, adding, “this is our chance” to avert a climate crisis “before it’s too late.” He easily discussed the need for strong fuel economy standards and expanding electric vehicles charging infrastructure, which Biden wants to boost by building 500,000 charging stations.

Even his one-time rival for the Democratic primary, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), had a warm reception for Buttigieg, including hinting that they and their husbands would be having dinner together soon.

“John and I look forward to seeing you and Chasten in a less formal setting outside of this hearing room,” she said.

Buttigieg spoke without any obvious reliance on notes about obscure DOT grant programs, safety statistics and ongoing trends and legislation related to transportation, displaying the studiousness that marked his candidacy for president and drawing praise from the senators.

Wicker dwelled on his education at Harvard and at Oxford University as a Rhodes scholar and praised his “impressive credentials” and “intellect.”

The hearing did draw a few sour notes mostly on climate issues, in particular related to Biden’s decision to cancel the Keystone XL oil pipeline, which Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) said “put thousands of union workers out of work on day one.”

Without litigating the details of the Keystone pipeline itself, Buttigieg insisted that he is “a big fan of the building trades” and that Biden’s climate plan will create “more good-paying union jobs.”

When Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) grilled him on Keystone, Buttigieg’s answer leaned on the notion of political legacies, saying history books will judge lawmakers on “whether we did enough to stop the destruction of life and property due to climate change.”

Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) also questioned Buttigieg on the Green New Deal, which Buttigieg supported during the Democratic presidential primary. Buttigieg noted that Biden, not he, had won the election and that it would be Biden’s climate vision that moves forward.

He comes into office with a much higher profile than any other Department of Transportation nominee, complete with a devoted fan base of Twitter followers who hang on his every word and have been studying up on transportation policy. After his hearing, #TeamPete members tweeted, “we adore our nerdy policy wonk“ and “the world is leaning [sic] why we love Pete so much.”

It’s a dynamic that didn’t escape senators in charge of vetting his nomination Thursday. Wicker teased Buttigieg about his recent spate of TV appearances, saying: “You were on The Tonight Show last night with Jimmy Fallon, and you were on the Morning Joe show this morning. In terms of thrilling experiences, how does being before this committee compare to those?”

"I would characterize this as a unique experience," Buttigieg answered.



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