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WASHINGTON – Republican senators gave President Obama’s Buffalo-born nominee for labor secretary a grilling Thursday over his work as assistant attorney general, but Thomas E. Perez stood strong in insisting that politics never played a role in his job at the Justice Department, and that it wouldn’t at the Labor Department, either.

“You will always have a person who has an open and balanced approach,” Perez said in his confirmation hearing before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

Perez, 51, refused to be rattled despite repeated questions over his actions as assistant attorney general for civil rights.

Most notably, Republicans protested Perez’s involvement in a deal in which the City of St. Paul, Minn., agreed to withdraw a housing-discrimination case that it could have appealed to the Supreme Court – potentially leading to a result that would have made it harder for the government to bring such cases.

In return for that agreement, the Justice Department vowed not to join two whistle-blower cases against St. Paul that, Republicans said, could have saved $200 million for U.S. taxpayers.

The top Republican on the committee, Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, said the deal smelled like an improper quid pro quo.

“It seems you have a duty to the government to collect the money [owed to the taxpayers], a duty to protect the whistle-blower who is left hanging in the wind – and at the same time it seems to me that you are manipulating the legal process to get the result you want in the Supreme Court in a way that seems inappropriate for the assistant attorney aeneral of the U.S.,” Alexander said.

In response, Perez said the head of the Justice Department’s Civil Division made the decision to not join the whistle-blower cases, perceiving them as too weak.

“The value to the U.S. of losing a case is zero,” Perez said.

Hearing that, the committee chairman, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, voiced support for the nominee.

“From everything I can see, you acted ethically and appropriately to advance the interests of the United States,” Harkin said.

Perez vowed to act exactly in that fashion if confirmed as labor secretary.

Asked what his top priority would be, Perez said: “Jobs, jobs and jobs.

“I believe it’s critically important to get Americans back to work, and I believe the Labor Department can play a role in that.”

In particular, he said he would work to streamline federal job-training programs much as he did as labor secretary in the State of Maryland, making sure that people are being trained for jobs that actually exist.

“You can’t train and pray,” he said. “You should only train in programs that you know are going to produce a job.”

In addition, Perez vowed to work with Democrats and Republicans alike and to bring together business and labor for the best solutions for the nation’s workforce problems.

“While I am currently a political appointee in the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department, I spent the bulk of my 13-year tenure there as a career criminal prosecutor,” he said. “I have had the privilege of working under four presidents: Ronald Reagan, George Herbert Walker Bush, Bill Clinton and now President Obama.”

In his opening remarks, Perez stressed his Buffalo roots. He noted that his father, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic, chose to work as a doctor at the Buffalo VA Medical Center because he wanted to give back to the country that had rescued his family from political turmoil back home.

His father died when Perez was 12, and he acknowledged that resulted in difficulties for his family.

But he said he pulled through because “my mother was a rock,” because of the support of his siblings and because “we lived in a place like Buffalo, where neighbors always looked after neighbors.”

The committee will vote on Perez’s nomination Thursday. If approved, the nomination will go to the full Senate, where Sen. David Vitter, R-La., is threatening to try to block it.

email: jzremski@buffnews.com