WASHINGTON — Labor Secretary R. Alexander Acosta is facing rising pressure — and a possible summons to testify before Congress — over the lenient plea bargain that he helped negotiate as Miami’s top federal prosecutor with a wealthy acquaintance of President Trump’s accused of trafficking children for sex.
Members of Florida’s House delegation have been in talks with the chairmen of the House Oversight and Judiciary Committees about calling Mr. Acosta to publicly answer questions about a 2006 plea agreement with the investor and Trump acquaintance Jeffrey E. Epstein, who was accused of sex offenses involving girls as young as 14. He pleaded guilty to more minor prostitution charges.
House leaders are likely to approve some kind of a hearing, although it is unclear when, according to three lawmakers involved in the discussions. Some of the young women said to have been exploited by Mr. Epstein have also expressed through their attorneys a willingness to publicly testify about the deal.
The appearance would be either at a committee hearing or in front of the House women’s caucus, they said.
“The Trump administration needs to get him the heck out of there — this is the person we have enforcing the country’s child labor laws,” said Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, one of 19 House Democrats who have called on Mr. Acosta to resign over what they called a “despicable” deal.
“We have many, many layers of questions that need to be answered, and I have been pressing for a public hearing,” she said.
Representative Lois Frankel, who also signed the letter, said, “I think this is a very blatant example of the sort of the big flaws in the justice system that very often favor the very wealthy over the rights of the very vulnerable.”
Some Republicans, including those who have previously supported Mr. Acosta, have called for an investigation into his actions as a prosecutor.
“We need to find out all the facts; we need to know what happened,” Senator Rick Scott, Republican of Florida, said in the Capitol on Monday.
In December, Senator Ben Sasse, Republican of Nebraska and a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, called on the Justice Department to investigate the actions of Mr. Acosta and other federal officials. But no Republican in either chamber has called for hearings, and it remains unlikely that the Republican-controlled Senate would take up a potentially embarrassing episode involving a respected lawyer who was, until recently, one of Mr. Trump’s least controversial cabinet picks.
But Democrats said the matter was ripe for congressional involvement. They suggested that Mr. Acosta was not completely forthcoming when he played down his role in the Epstein negotiations during his March 2017 confirmation hearings. A November 2018 story by The Miami Herald documented Mr. Acosta’s extensive interactions with Mr. Epstein’s lawyers.
“What makes me maddest is that the plea deal Acosta agreed to was about prostitution,” said Senator Tim Kaine, a Virginia Democrat who grilled Mr. Acosta on the Epstein case during his confirmation hearings.
Under an unusual “nonprosecution” deal negotiated by Mr. Acosta, then the United States attorney for the Southern District of Florida, the government agreed to drop the investigation in exchange for Mr. Epstein’s confession to prostitution and an 18-month sentence, of which Mr. Epstein served 13 months.
Last week, United States District Judge Kenneth Marra ruled that Mr. Acosta and his team of prosecutors violated the Crime Victims’ Rights Act because they failed to inform the victims in the case about the details of the plea deal. The Justice Department’s professional conduct division is investigating whether any rules or laws were broken.
On Friday the White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, said the administration was “looking into” Mr. Acosta’s role in securing the plea deal.
Mr. Acosta may not find the loyalty in conservative ranks that other troubled cabinet secretaries have found. Among lobbyists and employment lawyers representing business, there has been frustration with the speed at which Mr. Acosta has moved to tilt employment policy in a more business-friendly direction.
Many are eagerly awaiting the replacement of the Obama-era rule requiring time-and-a-half overtime pay for most salaried workers who make up to about $47,500 per year with a new regulation featuring a substantially lower income threshold. Businesses also favor a rule that makes it harder to hold companies liable for violations of employment laws committed by their contractors or franchisees, known as a “joint employer” rule.
“The management community wants the regulations we have been waiting for to get finalized by the end of 2019,” said Michael Lotito, a labor lawyer at the management-side firm Littler Mendelson. “For the ones that go into the 2020 election cycle, all bets are off.”
In a post on the conservative blog Power Line that was widely read and circulated among business lobbyists in the past few days, Paul Mirengoff, a longtime labor and employment lawyer representing management, urged Mr. Trump to oust Mr. Acosta or risk having Democrats use the Epstein case against him during the 2020 campaign.