Becerra confirmation as Health secretary looking likely after smooth hearings

Xavier Becerra
Xavier Becerra speaks before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee on Tuesday.
(Sarah Silbiger / Associated Press)

California Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra appeared headed toward confirmation as the nation’s first Latino secretary of Health and Human Services after a pivotal hearing passed Wednesday with few fireworks and no serious blows inflicted by Republicans hoping to derail him.

Members of the Senate Finance Committee on Wednesday pointed to the COVID-19 crisis in opposing or backing him as the right choice to lead the nation’s health agency, and Republicans expressed concern with his record of support for abortion rights. But even Republicans acknowledged that Becerra will probably be confirmed.

“If I was a betting man, I’d bet that you have the votes to get approved,” Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) said toward the end of the hearing.


Becerra similarly emerged from a hearing with the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee on Tuesday relatively unscathed.

The Senate’s 48 Democrats and two independents could confirm Becerra to the post with a tiebreaking assist from Vice President Kamala Harris if necessary. Several moderate Republicans indicated Tuesday that they are considering joining Democrats in supporting him.

Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) praised Becerra’s long previous experience in Congress working on health issues. The committee could vote on his nomination as early as next week, sending it to the full Senate after that.

“With a pandemic raging, so many Americans struggling to get by, and our healthcare system strained to the max, there may not be a higher-stakes job in the executive branch outside of the presidency itself,” Wyden said. “This is a nominee with the right policy experience, the right leadership experience and the right experience fighting for people without power.”

Republicans had at one time pinpointed Becerra as one of President Biden’s more vulnerable nominees, criticizing his support for abortion rights and “Medicare for all.”

Wednesday’s committee hearing included two of the 11 Republican senators who demanded in a letter that Biden withdraw Becerra’s nomination, calling him “unfit for any position of public trust.” Their questioning of Becerra was the most contentious, pushing him about how he would reconcile his past opposition to allowing limits on abortion access, even for religious reasons.


Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) asked Becerra if there were any limit on abortion he could support, including abortions based on sex or disability.

Repeatedly Becerra declined to give his personal opinion, saying as secretary he’d follow the laws on abortion as written.

Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) pressed Becerra about whether he would enforce the protections for religious objections already in law.

“At the end of the day … I have to follow the law,” Becerra said.

Some Republicans criticized Becerra over a lawsuit that centered on whether the Trump administration could grant a religious exemption to a nonprofit led by Roman Catholic nuns that did not want to abide by a federal requirement that contraceptives be covered in employer health plans.

The Catholic group intervened in the lawsuit Becerra filed against the Trump administration.

“I have never sued any nuns,” Becerra said, stressing that the suit was against the federal government, not the nonprofit, and that California was suing the Trump administration to make sure Californians had the contraceptive access provided under the Affordable Care Act.


During Tuesday’s hearing, Republicans largely focused on Becerra’s lack of a medical background during the COVID-19 pandemic, an issue Democrats brushed aside with reminders that the majority of Health secretaries have not held medical degrees.

In introducing Becerra to the Finance Committee on Wednesday, California Sen. Alex Padilla, a Democrat, urged senators to remember the bipartisan work they did with Becerra when he was in the House.

“It appears to me — it appears to many — he’s being held to a much different standard than some of the nominees this Senate has supported and confirmed over the last four years,” Padilla said.

Becerra served on the committee that sets healthcare policy during his 24 years in the House, and he was among the small group of lawmakers who helped write the Affordable Care Act. He became California attorney general in 2017.