At Elaine Chao Hearing, Smiles and Laughter in an Otherwise Tense Washington

The confirmation hearing for transportation secretary struck a friendly tone, but hinted at upcoming policy fights.

WASHINGTON—On a Wednesday morning of political havoc in the capital, Room G50 in the Dirksen Senate Office Building was a study in Beltway bonhomie as Elaine Chao cruised through her confirmation hearing for secretary of transportation.

Ms. Chao, who was secretary of labor under former President George W. Bush, is no stranger to the confirmation process or to Washington. She has previously served as deputy secretary of transportation, director of the Peace Corps and chief executive of the United Way of America. She has also written extensively in support of conservative policies and in favor of free trade.

Her hearing, in contrast to the aggressive questioning faced by secretary of state candidate Rex Tillerson , was part policy discussion and part reunion. Before she could even field questions from the Senate Commerce Committee about her nomination to run the Trump administration’s Transportation Department, senators—many of them Democrats—began sending regards from their spouses.

“You and my wife are the dearest of friends,” said Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida, the committee’s top Democrat.

“My wife Cynthia is a friend and admirer of yours,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D., Conn.).

“My husband Charlie sends his congratulations as well,” said Sen. Shelly Moore Capito (R., W.Va.).

Not to be outdone by her questioners, Ms. Chao was introduced by her own spouse, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who dryly praised her good judgment, drawing chuckles. He quoted former Sen. Robert Dole, another Senate leader who introduced his spouse before a confirmation hearing: “I regret that I have but one wife to give for my country.”

Within the friendly confines of the hearing, there were a few hints of policy fights to come. Ms. Chao declined to take a position, at the prodding of Mr. Nelson, on a proposal to privatize the nation’s air-traffic control system—a dispute that has held up a bill to reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration.

“I’d like to get confirmed first,” Ms. Chao replied, drawing a laugh from the hearing room.

Ms. Chao also largely deflected questions on exactly how the Trump administration will pay for a planned $1 trillion infrastructure program, but indicated a desire to bring in private investors.

“We all know the government doesn’t have the resources to do it all,” she said. Ms. Chao also said the department would reconsider “duplicative” regulations and permitting requirements that could slow down some major building projects.

Pressed by Democrats, including Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, on whether an infrastructure plan would include direct federal spending, not just tax credits and private investment, Ms. Chao answered: “I believe the answer is yes.”

Despite having editorialized in the past against so-called Buy America contracting rules, Ms. Chao said she would support Mr. Trump’s position that the government should require that U.S. infrastructure projects rely on American suppliers.

Ms. Chao also suggested she would support efforts to roll back some rule-making—an area of conflict between Obama administration safety regulators and transportation companies that engage in activities such as long-haul trucking and moving freight by railroad.

“There indeed have been overly burdensome regulations that need to be reviewed,” Ms. Chao said.

Senators who pressed found Ms. Chao hard to pin down. Sen. Maria Cantwell (D., Wash.) failed to elicit an explicit commitment that a study on the volatility of crude oil carried by railcar would continue in the Trump administration. Mr. Blumenthal tried and failed to prompt a similar commitment to hold the country’s major railroads to a 2018 deadline for installing required anticollision systems, known as positive train control.

That did little to change the tone of the day, which produced little indication of opposition to her nomination. Sen. Roy Blunt (R., Mo.) said he expected Ms. Chao to be confirmed without a single vote in opposition.

Sen. Brian Schatz (D., Hawaii) noted that Mr. McConnell’s introduction was “the first time I saw Leader McConnell hug anyone.”

“I’m glad it was me,” Ms. Chao replied.

Write to Ted Mann at ted.mann@wsj.com

%d bloggers like this: