WASHINGTON - Senators from both parties praised Inez Tenenbaum on Tuesday as a solid nominee to strengthen federal regulation of toys, Chinese drywall and a host of other consumer products with health and safety defects.
Tenenbaum told the Senate Commerce Committee that her experience running South Carolina's public schools system, from 1998 to 2006, had trained her to focus on practical solutions and would help her protect children's well-being as head of the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.
"If confirmed as the new chairman, I will reassure America's families that their government can and will protect them from unknown or unforeseen dangers in the products they use," Tenenbaum said at her confirmation hearing.
Tenenbaum, a Democrat, co-chaired President Barack Obama's White House campaign in South Carolina. She was the first state leader to endorse him in his primary campaign against Sen. Hillary Clinton, now secretary of state.
Obama nominated Tenenbaum, 58, last month to reinvigorate the demoralized federal agency.
President George W. Bush slashed the budget and cut the staff of the consumer safety agency, which ended his tenure with only two of its five commissioners in place.
The scheduling of Tenenbaum's confirmation hearing so soon after her nomination indicates widespread support, but final Senate approval could be delayed.
Senate tradition allows any member to block a nomination anonymously. White House aides said Tuesday that Republican Senate leaders for the last week had held up all Obama nominations to protest his bid to achieve a quick confirmation of federal appellate Judge Sonia Sotomayor to replace retiring Supreme Court Justice David Souter.
Eschewing such political struggles, South Carolina's two U.S. senators, Lindsey Graham and Jim DeMint, sang Tenenbaum's praises as they introduced her to the Commerce Committee.
DeMint, a Republican and committee member, drew laughter in referring to his defeat of Tenenbaum in their 2004 Senate race.
"My support means that I hope she won't run against me again," DeMint said.
Alluding to his reputation as a hard-edged conservative, DeMint quipped: "My only reservation in endorsing Inez is that my endorsement might hurt her."
Turning serious, DeMint said he hoped Tenenbaum would balance the need to protect consumers with the importance of shielding businesses from excessive federal intervention.
"The goal is more safety, not more regulation," DeMint said. "The whole point of this is not to run small companies out of business."
Tenenbaum noted that her husband, Samuel, who was in the audience, had worked for his family's steel company for many years.
"I'm very sensitive to the concerns of small business," she said.
Graham isn't a committee member, but he came to the hearing to put in a good word for Tenenbaum.
"It's a big honor for all the people of South Carolina to have Inez nominated for such an important job," said Graham, a Republican. "She is an enormously talented person."
Several senators implored Tenenbaum, once she assumes the post after her expected confirmation, to toughen standards and step up testing for the burgeoning number of consumer products from China. One even suggested that she consider opening a Beijing office for the safety agency.
Toys with lead paint, tainted drywall and other Chinese products have sparked lawsuits and anger among American consumer groups.
"The Chinese drywall situation is one of any number of product problems coming out of China," said Sen. Johnny Isakson, a Georgia Republican.
The Consumer Product Safety Commission has received hundreds of complaints from around the country about Chinese drywall, which emits sulfuric odors believed to corrode pipes and cause respiratory ailments.
"It's a very real problem causing hardship to people physically as well as causing damage to their property," Tenenbaum said.
Tenenbaum noted that when the consumer safety agency was established in 1973, most consumer products were made in the United States, but two-thirds are now imported - the vast majority from China.
Tenenbaum said one of her first priorities as chairwoman would be to meet with the head of the Chinese government agency in charge of consumer product safety in the communist country.
Senators from other states noted Tenenbaum's bipartisan backing in South Carolina.
"Anyone who has earned the support of Senator Fritz Hollings and Senator Lindsey Graham and Senator Jim DeMint is a person of great ability," Sen. Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat, said to laughter.
The Consumer Product Safety Commission, Boxer said, has shifted in recent years from ensuring that goods are safe for adults to testing them against possible harm to children.
"When you protect the children, you protect everyone," Boxer said. "Can you assure us you will put children first?"
Tenenbaum responded: "I will ask, before any rulemaking: Is this good for the children of the United States?"
(c) 2009, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.