Xavier Becerra testifies before the Senate on first day of confirmation hearing
President Biden’s HHS pick has faced some of the harshest scrutiny from the GOP.
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President Joe Biden’s nominee to head the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Xavier Becerra appeared before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee on Feb. 23 in the first of two hearings before a final vote.
If confirmed, Becerra, a former congressman and current Attorney General of California, would be the first Latino HHS secretary, tasked with the daunting mission of aiding the current administration on COVID-19 related policies, as well as carrying-out Biden’s promised healthcare expansion.
Before Becerra took his place before the Senate committee, 11 Republicans announced their opposition to the president’s nominee.
Led by Tom Cotton (R-AK), they sent a letter to Biden hours before Becerra’s hearing, asking Biden to withdraw Becerra’s nomination, arguing he is unqualified to lead the HHS. The president, however, is highly unlikely to heed the Senators’ concerns.
This isn’t the only effort by conservatives to hinder Becerra’s cabinet nomination.
Seventy-five GOP members of Congress signed a separate letter On Feb. 23, urging Biden to withdraw Becerra’s nomination on the premise that he is “not up to the challenges we face.”
Several GOP organizations have also launched a multi-million dollar adertising campign just weeks before his confirmation in a last-ditch effort to undermine Biden’s Health and Human Services pick, who has been outspoken on his support for the Affordable Care Act, and pro-choice policies.
But the efforts, while substantial, will likely prove too late.
There is no indication that Becerra’s confirmation is in a dire situation, but it's not yet set in stone. GOP senators, as demonstrated today, are set to make his hearings a proxy fight over several key issues Becerra has been vocal about in his past, including abortion, healthcare for all, health benefits for undocumented immigrants, as well as California’s COVID-19 response.
To be confirmed by the Senate, Becerra needs at least 51 votes, which he has if every Democratic member of the chamber votes for him and Vice President Harris breaks a tie. Joe Manchin (D-WV), a moderate, is so far undecided on Becerra’s pick, but has not overtly stated his opposition, as he has with Biden’s pick to lead the Office of Management and Budget, Neera Tanden.
Becerra was introduced by Sen. Alex Padilla (D-CA), the first Latino to represent California in the US Senate, at the start of his hearing.
HISTORY: Senator @AlexPadilla4CA, the first Latino to represent California in the U.S. Senate, introduces AG @XavierBecerra who could become the first Latino to ever lead the Department of Health and Human Services. pic.twitter.com/I5KStgiggK— Latino Victory (@latinovictoryus) February 23, 2021
“I understand the enormous challenges before us and our solemn responsibility to faithfully steward this agency that touches almost every aspect of our lives," he said in his opening statement.
He used his time to also highlight his family’s immigration story from Mexico, and touched on his mother’s hemorrhage during a miscarriage when he was a child, referencing the implications healthcare had on his early life.
“I’m humbled by the task. And I'm ready for it.” Becerra said.
Sen. Bernie Sanders was one of the first to question Becerra, on universal healthcare, and the drug affordability crisis. He asked Becerra how he would move the nation toward providing healthcare for all people and “substantially” lower the cost of prescription drugs.
“If we work hard to build on the affordable care act and if we continue to make improvements, we will get to that point where we will finally be able to say that we cover all of our people,” Becerra answered.
As for the cost of drugs, he said one of his priorities is to “deal with it swifty.”
Sanders' questioning, compared to his GOP colleagues, was light, especially with the main criticism the GOP is focusing on, being that Becerra has no prior healthcare experience.
Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-LA) a physician, pressed further and inquired more in depth on Becerra’s experience in health care, specifically prescription drug rebates on insulin and whether the full cost should be passed on to patients.
“I will look into that,” Becerra replied.
Sen. Mitt Romney pushed Becerra on his pro-choice stance.
“When I come to these issues, I understand that we may not always agree on where to go, but I think we can find some common ground on these issues,” Becerra replied.
“I think we can reach common ground on many issues, but on partial-birth abortion it sounds like we are not going to reach common ground,” Romney said, afterwards slashing the Biden administration’s plans to expand healthcare for fear of bankruptcy.
Becerra, while lacking in front line health experience, has previously advocated for Medicare for All and is known for filing more than 100 lawsuits against the Trump administration on issues ranging from abortion and immigration, to the administration's efforts to repeal and replace the Obama-era Affordable Care Act.
During his terms in Congress, he was the first Latino to serve as a member of the Ways and Means Committee, where he worked with health care as a senior member of its health subcommittee.
Becerra’s hearing will be continued Wednesday, Feb. 24, before the Senate Finance Committee, which must vote to advance the confirmation to a full Senate vote.