Mary Clare Jalonick and Matthew Daly
WASHINGTON — The Senate has confirmed Marcia Fudge to head the Department of Housing and Urban Development, placing the longtime Ohio lawmaker in charge of the agency just as Congress is poised to pass new benefits for renters and homeowners who have suffered economic losses amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Fudge, who has represented parts of Cleveland and Akron in the House since 2008, is a former mayor and a longtime advocate for assistance for the needy. She said at her confirmation hearing in January that her first priority would be protecting the millions of people who have fallen behind on rent or mortgages due to loss of income during the pandemic, telling senators that "we cannot afford to allow people in the midst of a pandemic to be put in the streets."
Her confirmation, 66-34, comes as the Senate is approving a slate of President Joe Biden's nominees. The Senate is expected to confirm Judge Merrick Garland as attorney general on Wednesday, and will vote on whether to advance the nomination of North Carolina regulator Michael Regan to lead the Environmental Protection Agency.
Fudge won bipartisan support for her nomination, including from Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, who said he would support her and Garland.
"These aren't the nominees that any Republican would have picked for these jobs," McConnell said ahead of the vote. "But the nation needs presidents to be able to stand up a team so long as their nominees are qualified and mainstream."
Meanwhile, McConnell said he will oppose Regan's nomination and also New Mexico Rep. Deb Haaland to be interior secretary. He said the two nominees both support "far-left policies that crush jobs" in his state and across the country.
Regan and Haaland "both report straight to the front lines of the new administration's left-wing war on American energy" and would "unbalance the balancing act between conservation and the economic comeback we badly need," McConnell said.
He cited Regan's support for the Obama administration's Clean Power Plan to reduce carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants, and Haaland's support for the Green New Deal, a far-reaching, if nonbinding set of proposals to address climate change and reduce economic inequality.
The Senate is expected to vote on Regan's nomination as soon as Thursday. Timing for a vote on Haaland's nomination has not been set.
Republicans who opposed Fudge's nomination argued that she was also out of the mainstream. Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey criticized some of Fudge's past comments about Republicans, saying they could have a "toxic and detrimental impact on the working relationship that ought to be a constructive relationship" between Congress and the Biden administration.
Toomey referenced a statement Fudge made last year when GOP senators moved to fill the Supreme Court vacancy left by the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg after blocking Obama's nominee — Garland, now up for attorney general — four years earlier. Republicans had argued in 2016 that Garland's nomination shouldn't be considered months ahead of a presidential election.
Fudge at the time called Senate Republicans "a disgrace to this nation" and said they "have no decency, they have no honor, they have no integrity."
At her confirmation hearing, Fudge did not walk back any of her previous statements but described herself as "one of the most bipartisan members in the House of Representatives."
Democrats argued that Fudge's experience was right for the times. Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee Chairman Sherrod Brown, an Ohio Democrat who lives in Fudge's district, noted that parts of the area suffered a disproportionate number of foreclosures before the economic crisis a decade ago.
"She knows how for decades, communities have watched as factories closed, investment dried up, and storefronts were boarded over," Brown said. "And she knows how many neighborhoods and towns have never had the investment they should – because of discrimination, because of redlining, because of decades of policy that funneled resources and jobs away from Black and brown communities."
Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer said Fudge "has a difficult job ahead of her" as millions of American renters are behind on payments and millions of homeowners are in forbearance.
"At the same time, we are on the verge of passing major assistance for renters and for homeowners," Schumer said, just ahead of expected House passage of the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill. "As the incoming Secretary, I know Rep. Fudge will implement that assistance with alacrity."
The COVID-19 relief bill provides about $30 billion to help low-income households and the unemployed afford rent and utilities, and to assist the homeless with vouchers and other support. States and tribes would receive an additional $10 billion for homeowners who are struggling with mortgage payments because of the pandemic.