WASHINGTON — Senate Republicans who want to derail Xavier Becerra’s nomination to join President Joe Biden’s Cabinet as Health and Human Services secretary will get their first shot at hearings this week — but they’re going to have a hard time.
Becerra is one of Biden’s few Cabinet nominees who Republicans intend to fight. The Senate has confirmed seven of Biden’s Cabinet picks so far. Save for one of those confirmed picks, Republicans haven’t made concerted efforts to sink Biden’s nominees.
But Becerra will be different — especially after his well-publicized record of suing former President Donald Trump’s administration 123 times on issues ranging from immigration, to environmental productions and LGBTQ rights.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., described Becerra as “famously partisan” in a floor speech in late January.
“His recent experience in health policy seems largely limited to promoting abortion on demand and suing groups like the Little Sisters of the Poor who dare to live out their religious convictions,” McConnell said, referring to a lawsuit filed by Becerra against a Catholic organization that refused to follow a mandate under former President Barack Obama that said they had to cover birth control for employees.
At least half a dozen Republican senators have aired similar complaints about Becerra. They also portray him as too inexperienced for an important job as the nation’s health secretary, especially during a global pandemic.
Becerra, who is originally from Sacramento, California, previously served in the House of Representatives for more than a decade before becoming California’s attorney general in 2017.
Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., said Becerra “isn’t qualified for the job” and called him a “lawyer and a career politician” with “no experience in public health.”
“Facing a once-in-a-century pandemic, one might think that Biden would nominate, say, a doctor or a seasoned health care executive to oversee the federal response and vaccine distribution,” Cotton said.
If confirmed as secretary of Health and Human Services, Becerra will lead an agency that includes the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration. He’d play a critical role in how the nation responds to the coronavirus pandemic.
He’d also shape health care policy, including further implementation of the Affordable Care Act.
Some of Becerra’s lawsuits against the Trump administration focused on defending the Affordable Care Act, which Trump had tried to dismantle in multiple ways.
“The ACA has been life-changing and now through this pandemic, we can all see the value in having greater access to quality health care at affordable prices,” Becerra said when he filed a brief with the Supreme Court in defense of the health care law last June. “Now is not the time to rip away our best tool to address very real and very deadly health disparities in our communities.
After Biden announced his selection, Becerra made it clear that he thought the Affordable Care Act was a top priority.
“In Congress, I helped pass the Affordable Care Act. As California’s Attorney General, I defended it,” Becerra tweeted. “As Secretary of Health and Human Services, I will build on our progress and ensure every American has access to quality, affordable health care — through this pandemic and beyond.”
Democrats don’t need Republicans in order to confirm Becerra, however, as long as they all stick together or bring on a few Republican votes.
Moderate Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona have not said publicly how they will vote on Becerra’s nomination.
But moderate Republicans also have been silent on Becerra.
Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, Mitt Romney, R-Utah, and Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, have not said how they plan to vote and their offices did not return a request for comment from McClatchy.
Collins has expressed surprise that Becerra doesn’t have more experience in health care, while Romney has said he thinks presidents are typically entitled to the team they pick, “unless they’re completely off the mark.”
All three of those moderate Republicans are on the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee, where Becerra will appear for his first confirmation hearing on Tuesday — possibly giving more insight into their intentions. He has a second confirmation hearing with the Senate Finance Committee on Wednesday.
In addition to the seven confirmations, eight of Biden’s nominees have been confirmed by committee and are awaiting a full vote in the Senate.
Republicans publicly opposed one of those seven confirmed nominees, Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas, over his stances on immigration and a 2015 inspector general report that found he created an appearance of favoritism by intervening in visa cases as a deputy secretary of Homeland Security in the Obama administration.
The inspector general did not find any legal wrongdoing with Mayorkas’ actions and determined the decisions were “legitimately within his purview,” a Biden transition spokesman said in November.
The Senate confirmed Mayorkas, 56 to 43, with all Democrats and six Republicans voting to confirm him.