Labor secretary nominee Alexander Acosta testified in support of job-training programs targeted for cuts by the White House.
At his confirmation hearing on Wednesday, Mr. Acosta provided senators the first clear look at his views on labor policy. He said he would be "a voice for workers" and would enforce workplace safety laws "fully and fairly."
Job-training programs can "have substantial positive impact on American workers," but a better effort must be made to align training with the skills employers demand, he wrote.
One program he named as a model, Job Corps, provides 16- to 24-year-olds with free vocational training. President Donald Trump's budget, released last week, would see centers closed and funding for other job-training programs reduced, thereby shifting responsibility for such services to state and local governments, and employers.
Mr. Acosta said the Labor Department must join with local governments, industry and educational institutions.
"I will work with you to maximize the impact of every taxpayer dollar Congress that is directed toward job-training programs," he told senators.
Mr. Acosta, who has served as law-school dean at Florida International University College of Law since 2009, also outlined his approach to regulatory enforcement, without offering specifics.
"As a former prosecutor, I will always be on the side of the law and not any particular constituency," he said.
Some businesses criticized the Obama administration for targeting specific industries, such as fast-food restaurants, for increased scrutiny.
Mr. Acosta's statement that he would continue the Labor Department's traditional role of being "a voice for workers" could provide some reassurance to unions, some of which have supported Mr. Acosta's nomination. Some unions feared Mr. Trump's first choice for labor secretary, fast-food executive Andy Puzder, would predominantly side with businesses and managers.
"Whether it is those who are working," Mr. Acosta said, "those who still seek work, those who are discouraged or underemployed, or those who have retired, if confirmed as the secretary of labor, part of my job will be to be one of those advocates."
Several senators asked Mr. Acosta for his opinion of overtime rules. Late last year, a federal judge stopped rules updated by the Obama administration from going into place on Dec. 1. Those rules would have raised the threshold salary under which most workers are required to receive time-and-half pay for working extra hours to $47,476 from the $23,660 level set in 2004. That would have made an estimated four million additional workers eligible for overtime pay.
Mr. Acosta signaled at his confirmation hearing that the level should be raised from the one set in 2004. "I think it's unfortunate that rules involving dollar values can go more than a decade without adjusting," Mr. Acosta said. "Life does get more expensive." He didn't offer a dollar amount, but noted that if the 2004 level was adjusted for inflation, it would be about $33,000. Mr. Acosta, however, said there is an open legal question about whether the labor secretary has the authority to raise the overtime threshold. That is at issue in the pending litigation.
Mr. Acosta wouldn't commit to pursuing an appeal to the judge's stay, saying he would need to first consult with Labor Department attorneys.
Before Wednesday, Mr. Acosta hadn't spoken publicly on specific policy views since his nomination last month. That raised concerns among both lawmakers and businesses about how he would approach the job.
Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, the ranking Democrat on the committee considering Mr. Acosta, said at the hearing she has "serious concerns." She pointed to a Justice Inspector General report finding Mr. Acosta and other managers failed to properly supervise a lower-level political appointee who sought to fill career positions based on applicants' political ideologies.
"You at best ignored an extraordinary politicization of the work of this critical division -- and at worst, actively facilitated it," Ms. Murray said in her opening statement at Mr. Acosta's confirmation hearing.
The conduct reported in the inspector general's report "should not have happened," Mr. Acosta said. "It happened on my watch, and I deeply regret it."
He said political views shouldn't be considered when hiring of career staff. "If I'm asked to do that, I will not allow it," Mr. Acosta said.
Sen. Tim Kaine (D., Va.) asked about the investigation of billionaire South Florida financier Jeffrey Epstein, which occurred during Mr. Acosta's time as U.S. attorney in Miami.
Mr. Epstein faced allegations that he paid a string of high-school-age girls for sexual encounters. Lawyers for some of Mr. Epstein's alleged victims have filed a lawsuit, which faults the Justice Department for negotiating a plea deal -- under which he ultimately served a 13-month prison sentence -- they said was too lenient.
Mr. Acosta said the case involving Mr. Epstein "was hard fought" and the outcome was a "point of pride" at the time, Mr. Acosta said. The case was initially a state matter, Mr. Acosta said, and a state grand jury brought only a single charge that would have resulted in no jail time for Mr. Epstein. Mr. Acosta said the plea deal resulted in Mr. Epstein going to jail, registering as a sexual offender and preserving victims' rights to restitution.
Mr. Epstein's plea agreement wasn't initially made public. Since that time, Mr. Acosta said, he's learned that one needs to carefully consider when records are withheld from public view.
"Even when it's generally a very positive outcome, when something is not public, it can become subject to suspicion," he said.
Mr. Acosta also said he condemned the leniency the state of Florida showed to Mr. Epstein while he was in jail. Mr. Epstein was allowed to leave incarceration for work purposes.
Despite the senators' concerns, Mr. Acosta's confirmation process is expected to move more smoothly than that of Mr. Puzder.
Unions and worker groups strongly protested that nomination, pointing to Mr. Puzder's comments critical of raising the minimum wage and increasing overtime eligibility. But ultimately he stepped aside as personal controversies emerged and Republicans hedged on their support.
Republicans, so far, appear to be uniform in supporting Mr. Acosta, who has been confirmed three times previously by the Senate.
And Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson signaled he will vote for the fellow Floridian. Republicans control the Senate, and a simple majority is required to win approval for one of the few vacant cabinet posts.
By Eric Morath