Xavier Becerra, HHS nominee, largely escapes Republican attacks

Alexander Nazaryan

WASHINGTON – With measured, circumspect remarks, Xavier Becerra deflected Republican attacks on his record from Republican senators hoping to scuttle his nomination to head the Department of Health and Human Services.

If he is confirmed, as appeared likely as of Tuesday afternoon, Becerra will be the first person of Latino descent to head the health department, at a time when inequalities in health delivery and health outcomes are at the center of the national conversation. Currently the attorney general of California, Becerra has no expertise in medicine, which led some to question why the Biden administration nominated him. The 63-year-old attorney is expected to use his legal expertise to help protect and shore up the Affordable Care Act, a priority for the new administration.

"This is someone who is in the weeds of health care policy, health care coverage,” Sen. Christopher Murphy, D-Conn., said in his remarks during the hearing.

Becerra, a former member of the U.S. House of Representatives who returned to California to replace then-attorney general Kamala Harris when she was elected to the U.S. Senate, is, like many other Biden nominees, a well-known entity on Capitol Hill.

Xavier Becerra, nominee for Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS), testifies at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee on February 23, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Leigh Vogel-Pool/Getty Images)
Xavier Becerra, nominee for Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS), testifies at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee on February 23, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Leigh Vogel-Pool/Getty Images)

In his opening remarks, Becerra — the son of Mexican immigrants who settled in Sacramento — alluded to an incident, during his childhood, when his mother was rushed to the hospital with a hemorrhage. “The image is seared in my memory,” Becerra told the members of the Senate health committee arrayed before him, many of them via telelink. His mother survived, he was quick to note, and is alive to this day. Her care at the time was covered by health insurance provided through the union to which his father, a laborer, belonged.

Republican opposition to the nominee had been long in the works. “Becerra has no background in virology, he never worked at a pharmaceutical company, and his only health care experience is that he sued the Little Sisters of the Poor,” tweeted Sen. Ted Cruz ahead of the hearing, referencing a lawsuit involving a Catholic charity that resisted the ACA’s contraception mandate.

Sen. Mike Braun, R-Ind., reprised Cruz’s line of attack during the hearing, calling Becerra “very extreme on abortion issues.” But the smiling, Stanford-trained attorney did not appear troubled by such criticism, nor by Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah queries on “partial-birth abortion,” a term anti-abortion advocates use for pregnancies terminated after the 20th week.

“I think we can find some common ground on these issues,” Becerra offered. Romney clearly wasn’t satisfied with the answer. “It sounds like we’re not going to reach common ground there,” the senator said of the abortion debate.

At the same time, Becerra gave him little opening to pursue the matter further.

Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT) questions Xavier Becerra, U.S. President Joe Biden's nominee for Secretary of Health and Human Services, during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, U.S., February 23, 2021. (Sarah Silbiger/Pool via Reuters)
Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT) questions Xavier Becerra, U.S. President Joe Biden's nominee for Secretary of Health and Human Services, during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, U.S., February 23, 2021. (Sarah Silbiger/Pool via Reuters)

The exchange with Romney was indicative of Becerra’s willing to traffic in the kind of well-worn assurances that official Washington likes to hear. He said, for example, that “science must come first,” a common refrain of the Biden administration.

A revealing moment came during an exchange with Sen. Susan Collins, R-Me., on reopening schools, an issue that has quickly emerged as a problematic one for the Biden administration. Becerra made no assurances, describing reopening schools as a “local issue” over which the federal government had little sway.

He also seemed to falsely suggest that the coronavirus was harmful to children in educational settings. "No one wants to risk the life of their child,” he said, though there appears to be little evidence that in-person schooling represents such a risk.

Becerra also praised the Biden administration’s goal of vaccinating 100 million people in its first 100 days, though others have said the plan is not nearly ambitious enough.

Republicans who’d been skeptical of the nominee would have found little reassurance in Tuesday’s proceedings, though they would have also found just a few opportunities to build their case against Becerra.

“I’m not sold yet,” Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, the committee’s ranking Republican member, said at the start of the hearing. Yet it was clear that both he and his fellow Republicans were reconciled to the fact that within a matter of days, Becerra would be the nation’s new health secretary.

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