Republicans see Becerra as next target in confirmation wars
Senate Republicans are setting their sights on California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, President Biden’s choice to head the Department of Health and Human Services, as their next target in the battle over Biden’s Cabinet.
Republicans, on the cusp of quashing Neera Tanden’s nomination to head the White House budget office, are looking for their next scalp and see Becerra as a tough vote for Democrats.
They argue that Becerra, who served for 24 years in the House before becoming California’s attorney general in 2017, lacks the medical or administrative background needed to lead the nation’s health agencies in the midst of a pandemic.
“I would’ve been willing to vote for somebody, absolutely, but you’ve got to at least know something about the subject matter,” said Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.), who said Becerra seemed at a loss answering his questions before the Senate Health and Finance Committees this week.
“If I as a doctor was appointed to be the attorney general of the United States of America what would you think? That’s kind of odd,” said Cassidy, a former medical doctor who doesn’t have a law degree.
Cassidy said Becerra ducked and weaved when asked at hearings this week about Medicare’s 340B drug pricing program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, and pharmacy benefit managers.
“There are three major buckets in HHS and I asked him questions that were not ideological. I asked him questions in each of those three buckets and none of the three did he answer. He gave an answer that was a non-answer, which indicates, ‘I don’t have a good answer so I’m going to duck and weave,’” he said after Becerra testified before the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions and the Finance.
Senate Republican aides acknowledge it will be tough to derail Becerra, who could pick up GOP votes. No Democratic opposition has yet emerged and Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) can get him confirmed on a straight party-line vote.
Two key Republican centrists, Sens. Susan Collins (Maine) and Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), haven’t yet said how they will vote but they did not criticize Becerra during his testimony before the Health Committee.
Collins, however, said Thursday she was impressed by Becerra’s performance before the Health panel, and indicated she could vote for his nomination once she and the nominee hammer out an understanding on school closures during the pandemic.
“I had a very good conversation with him prior to the hearing, thought he did well at his hearing. But we have been swapping phone calls on an issue,” Collins told reporters Thursday.
She said she has more to discuss with Becerra on “school openings.”
But other Republicans seem to be rallying against Becerra.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on Tuesday called Biden’s nomination of Becerra “a puzzling selection for this critical post.”
McConnell noted that Becerra as attorney general challenged the Department of Health and Human Services decision under former President Trump to expand religious exemptions for employers that do not want to cover contraceptives through their insurance plans.
The GOP leader also cited Becerra’s defense in court of a California law, the FACT Act, requiring pregnancy crisis centers established by pro-life organizations to post notices informing women who visit them of the services of state-funded abortion and contraceptive services. The law was later struck down in a 5-4 Supreme Court decision.
“His chief passion project in California seemed to be using the force of government to attack Americans’ religious liberty and freedom of conscience,” McConnell said.
Republicans would need at least one Democrat to oppose Becerra, and their best bet is likely centrist Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who opposed Tanden and has not yet announced how he will vote on Becerra’s nomination.
Democrats for Life, a group that favors limits on abortion rights, is putting pressure on Manchin and Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.), the two Senate Democrats most aligned with their cause, to oppose Becerra’s nomination.
Manchin and Casey were the only two Democrats who voted for a budget amendment sponsored by Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) earlier this month to prohibit health-care practitioners from failing to do everything in their power to care for a fetus who survives an abortion or attempted abortion.
A group of Republicans held a press conference Thursday afternoon to highlight their opposition to Becerra.
“We have looked seriously at the Xavier Becerra nomination and do not see him being qualified for this task nor the right person for this,” said Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.), who led the press conference.
“Obviously he’s an attorney by trade in the middle of a pandemic. This is not the time to be able to put an attorney leading Health and Human Services,” Lankford said.
“We also have other issues like the issues about life and about conscience,” he added, citing Becerra’s defense of California’s FACT Act.
Several Senate Republicans have sent a letter to the White House asking Biden to rescind Becerra’s nomination.
Eleven GOP senators and 64 House Republicans wrote a letter to Biden on Monday asking him “to put our country over radical partisan objectives by withdrawing Mr. Becerra’s nomination.”
“Becerra’s lack of qualifications is particularly alarming given the important role the HHS Secretary will play in efforts to develop and distribute vaccines, coordinate research efforts, and draft critical regulations to carry out recovery legislation,” they wrote.
Schumer defended Becerra in a December floor speech, calling him eminently qualified.
“He has a particularly long track record as an advocate of women’s health. As attorney general of California, he became one of the foremost legal experts on our nation’s health-care laws,” he said.
Schumer said it was “rich” for Republicans to attack Becerra’s qualifications after they supported Rick Perry, former President Trump’s pick for Secretary of Energy.
The Democratic leader noted that Perry “wanted to abolish” the Energy Department “before learning it maintained the nation’s nuclear stockpile and that he would be in charge of it.”