Transportation Secretary nominee Pete Buttigieg smiles during a Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill, Thursday, Jan. 21, 2021, in Washington. Credit: Stefani Reynolds / Pool via AP

WASHINGTON — A Senate panel on Wednesday easily advanced President Joe Biden’s nomination of Pete Buttigieg to be transportation secretary, setting up a final confirmation vote for a key role in Biden’s push to rebuild the nation’s infrastructure and confront climate change.

The Commerce Committee approved the nomination of Buttigieg, a 39-year-old former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, on a 21-3 vote.

His nomination now heads to the full Senate, where a vote could happen as early as this week. He would be the first openly gay person, and one of the youngest, confirmed by the Senate to a Cabinet post.

Biden has been urging the Senate, where Democrats hold a bare majority, to move quickly on his Cabinet picks given the current crisis of COVID-19, which prompted him in part to sign an executive order mandating masks on airplanes and in public transportation to help stem the spread of the deadly virus. The president has also pledged an ambitious agenda of jobs growth, fighting climate change and promoting racial equity.

Sen. Maria Cantwell, the panel’s incoming Democratic chair, praised Buttigieg’s credentials before the vote Wednesday and urged quick confirmation so he can get to work on COVID-19 safety in transportation. “He understands what all of us have to deal with on transportation and infrastructure,” Cantwell said.

With the transportation sector, particularly car emissions, a top contributor in the United States to global warming, Buttigieg, a former Democratic presidential rival whom Biden praised as bringing “a new voice,” is expected to play an important role in the climate agenda. Advocates hope his public stature and loyal following from the 2020 campaign could help win over lawmakers and push through broad infrastructure changes long unachievable on Capitol Hill.

Buttigieg, in a tweet, thanked the members of the Commerce Committee for “their vote of confidence in me” on Wednesday. He said he looked forward to teaming with members of the committee “as we get to work on infrastructure and building our economy back better.”

At his confirmation hearing last week, Buttigieg received bipartisan praise as he pledged an immediate focus on transportation safety while pointing to a “generational” opportunity to help remake how people travel.

As examples, he pledged to help put in place new federal automotive fuel economy standards to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, promote quicker development of self-driving cars and push the use of electric vehicles, such as by adding a half-million charging stations nationwide.

Republican senators during his hearing signaled future battles ahead over the cost and scope of updating the nation’s roads and bridges, rails and airports, a broad goal that eluded former President Donald Trump the last four years, but they said they looked forward to many discussions with Buttigieg.

Biden has said he will unveil the full details of his infrastructure plan next month.

Story by Hope Yen, The Associated Press