Senate approves Trump Transportation Department nominee

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Senate voted Monday to approve a senior Transportation Department nominee and advance another nomination, after Republicans accused Democrats of blocking some nominees to push for funding of a New York area infrastructure project.

The U.S. Capitol Building is seen shortly before sunset in Washington, U.S. May 17, 2017. REUTERS/Zach Gibson

Derek Kan, who was previously an official at San Francisco-based ride services company Lyft Inc, won confirmation to be undersecretary of transportation for policy on a 90-7 vote.

Senate Republicans have said their Democratic rivals were stalling a number of nominees over a dispute over funding for the $24 billion “Gateway Program,” which includes building a new tunnel underneath New York’s Hudson River. At least eight other Transportation Department nominations are pending and other jobs vacant, including a top auto safety regulator.

In addition to confirming Kan, the Senate voted 50-47 on Monday to advance the nomination of Steven Bradbury, a Washington lawyer, to be general counsel at the Transportation Department.

During the administration of President George W. Bush, Bradbury was one of the principal authors of the legal justifications for “enhanced interrogation techniques” called the “torture memos” by critics. Senator Tammy Duckworth, an Illinois Democrat, said in June that Bradbury “lacked the judgment to stand up against (the Bush) administration’s use of torture.”

Bradbury defended his work in June, saying the “questions we addressed raised difficult issues about which reasonable people could disagree.”

In September, President Donald Trump met with top elected officials from New York and New Jersey over the fate of the Gateway Program deemed critical to northeast U.S. transportation, but Trump made no commitments to finance the project.

Republican Senator John Thune accused Democrats of holding nominations “hostage” while awaiting “assurances that the Trump administration will approve and fund” the Gateway project.

“While no one questions the importance of this corridor, there are many other important projects that also are awaiting approval and funding at the Department. No project should get to cut the line based on the machinations of a handful of our” colleagues, Thune said.

Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer said on Monday he opposed Kan because of administration roadblocks to the project. “Time is running out and we must quickly build new tunnels,” Schumer said.

A Senate Democratic aide confirmed, separately, that Democrats were holding up some nominations “because they want assurances from the Transportation Department the Gateway Project will quickly move forward after it’s funded.”

The Transportation Department regulates the nation’s vehicles, airplanes, railroads, pipelines, ports and highways.

Reporting by David Shepardson; editing by Diane Craft and Tom Brown