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GOP questions Becerra’s experience to run Health agency at his first confirmation hearing

California Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra speaks at a lectern.
California Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra at a news conference in December 2020.
(Associated Press)

California Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra emerged relatively unscathed Tuesday from the first of two hearings this week on his nomination to be Health and Human Services secretary, as Democrats brushed aside Republican assertions that his experience is insufficient for the post.

Conservative groups see Becerra as one of President Biden’s most vulnerable nominees and have joined many Senate Republicans in opposition, criticizing his support for abortion rights and “Medicare for all.”

But the emphasis Tuesday in the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee was on whether Biden should have picked a doctor to lead the agency while the country grapples with the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I’m a physician. What would you, as the attorney, think if I — the physician — were nominated to be the United States attorney general as opposed to Merrick Garland? You would say, ‘Ah, that guy’s not qualified,’” Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) said. “So you can imagine the kind of concerns I have regarding your nomination.”

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Democrats dismissed such complaints, stressing that only three of the 12 previous secretaries of the department had medical degrees. Recent secretaries include one doctor who served for a few months, but also a pharmaceutical executive, a White House budget director and three Republican governors.

“We have had plenty of good business folks and lawyers who have been strong HHS secretaries for both parties,” Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) said, adding that he liked Becerra’s mix of legislative and state government experience.

The greater test for Becerra could come when he appears before the Senate Finance Committee on Wednesday, which includes two of the 11 Republican senators who have demanded Biden withdraw Becerra’s nomination, saying in a letter that his lack of healthcare experience and his policy positions make him “unfit for any position of public trust, and especially for HHS secretary.”

Only the Finance committee will vote on the nomination before sending it to the full Senate.

Becerra would be the first Latino secretary of Health and Human Services, and he pledged Tuesday that the thousands of doctors and health experts at the agency will continue to play a major role in decision making at the agency if he is confirmed. Becerra frequently sought to soothe Republicans by assuring senators he would work with them on their issues, including rural pharmacies and the cost of insulin.

Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Calif.) introduced Becerra to the committee as the right choice for the moment, noting he understands communities that have been left out of healthcare access in the past, including during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The devastation has disproportionately impacted working-class communities and communities of color, very similar to the very neighborhoods that Atty. Gen. Becerra and I grew up in,” Padilla said. “These communities are hurting and dying at alarming rates, and they desperately need someone who knows these communities to their core.”

Becerra represented Los Angeles for 24 years in the House and was a senior member of the committee that sets healthcare policy. He was among the small group of lawmakers who helped write the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. Fixing disparate access to healthcare was a signature issue during his two dozen years in the House. Abortion rights and child advocacy groups have lined up in support of Becerra, as has the American Medical Assn.

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When he became California attorney general in 2017, Becerra led the state’s efforts to block Republicans from repealing the Affordable Care Act and fought with a nonprofit led by Catholic nuns who sought an exemption from a provision in the law requiring employer-sponsored health plans to cover the cost of contraceptives.

Democrats don’t expect Republicans’ attempts to block Becerra to be successful. In a Senate divided 50-50, Democrats could confirm Becerra if the caucus sticks together and Vice President Kamala Harris breaks the tie.

But the National Review reported Monday that moderate Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia is undecided on whether to support Becerra, potentially putting his nomination in question.

Several moderate Republicans said Tuesday that they have not made up their minds either, with Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Mitt Romney of Utah both saying they don’t think the position has to be filled by a doctor.

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Of greater concern for Romney was Becerra’s previous opposition to a so-called partial-birth abortion ban.

Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.) also raised concerns about Becerra’s support for abortion access and asked him to commit to not using taxpayer money to fund abortions and abortion providers.

“We will follow the law when it comes to the use of federal resources. There I can make that commitment that we will follow the law,” Becerra said.


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