WASHINGTON – After the uniformly tense confirmation hearings for other Trump Cabinet nominees, Linda McMahon might have been braced for some hard knocks.
Instead, the professional wrestling executive was greeted Tuesday with a series of mostly friendly questions as members of the Senate Small Business Committee railed against regulations and asked McMahon to commit to helping small businesses led by women, minorities, veterans and those with criminal records.
McMahon, the former chief executive of World Wrestling Entertainment and a major Trump donor, played up her own role as a job creator. She noted her experience in growing her family’s business from a one-desk operation to a multimillion-dollar empire with 800 employees.
“Small businesses have had some tough blows in the last decade,” McMahon said in her opening remarks. “I know what it’s like to take a hit.”
She described an early bankruptcy filing in which her family lost its home and said she identified with entrepreneurs fighting to get businesses off the ground.
Small-business advocates, however, have raised concerns over McMahon’s role in quashing small- and medium-size rivals.
Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., said she and McMahon had spoken privately about similar issues and praised her for a “willingness to address” concerns about “potential monopolistic practices at the WWE.” Duckworth also brought up its practice of classifying its wrestlers as independent contractors instead of as employees, which means they go without health care and retirement benefits.
“I don’t want that to become the standard – that small businesses use [contract] employees to avoid paying and providing health benefits and protections for small-business employees,” Duckworth said before changing the subject.
McMahon also addressed questions about earlier statements she had made in which she called for the SBA to be merged with the Commerce Department to cut costs. On Tuesday, she said she had made those remarks during her Senate run to make a broader point about government waste.
“When I was asked if I supported merging SBA into Commerce, I wasn’t focused on SBA or Commerce,” she said. “I was focused on the concept of merging agencies or reducing duplicative programs so that we could reduce costs.”
McMahon took questions from all 19 members of the Senate Small Business Committee. The hearing lasted less than two hours.
If confirmed, McMahon said her first course of action would be to help small businesses recover after natural disasters by updating the agency’s policies.
“Disasters don’t pick a time. They just happen,” McMahon said in response to a question from Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa. “When our small businesses are put out of business for a while, the economy suffers. We need to get funds to them, to make direct loans to them.”
McMahon also addressed concerns that President Trump’s nominee to head the Federal Communications Commission, Ajit Pai, may soon repeal net neutrality rules that prohibit Internet service providers from giving special treatment to certain websites and apps. Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., pointed out that small businesses would be disproportionately hurt by such a move and asked McMahon for her thoughts.
“I have not dealt with net neutrality in any of the businesses I have been involved in,” McMahon said. “I understand your concern from yesterday, that we don’t want restrictions on access to the Internet because it can impede small businesses, so I’d like to continue to learn more about that.”
The first indication that Tuesday’s hearing would be friendly came early, when McMahon was introduced by Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy, both Democrats who ran against her in contentious Senate races in 2010 and 2012.
“This visual is going to be a little amusing and surprising to folks in Connecticut who watched the three of us duke it out over two long Senate campaigns,” Murphy said. “But politics can’t work if political grudges never die. Political adversaries have to find a way to work together.”
McMahon’s daughter, Stephanie, was in the audience with her husband, Paul Levesque, the wrestler known as Triple H – a fact that did not go unnoticed.
“After this, maybe we should go to the Senate gym so I can give Triple H some triple help in getting back in shape,” said Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J.
“Stephanie could give you a mean hip-toss,” McMahon replied.
“I believe that,” Booker said.
At the end, Sen. James Risch, R-Idaho, the committee chairman, told McMahon “we’re going to try to move this next week.”
“We feel very good about being able to get you confirmed,” he said.