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GOP questions Health Secretary nominee Xavier Becerra on his experience, abortion views at Senate confirmation hearing

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President Biden's choice to lead the Department of Health and Human Services, Xavier Becerra, testified at his Senate confirmation hearing Tuesday. Republican lawmakers have criticized Becerra for a lack of experience as a health official and his support for abortion rights. Politico Pro health care reporter Alice Miranda Ollstein joins "Red and Blue" anchor Elaine Quijano with more on how Becerra responded to tough questions at the hearing.

Video Transcript

- Health Secretary nominee Xavier Becerra testified at a confirmation hearing before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Tuesday. Prior to becoming California's attorney general, Becerra served 12 terms in Congress. If confirmed, he'll be the first Latino to helm the federal health department, where he would face the critical task of spearheading the nation's pandemic response.

XAVIER BECERRA: Over two decades in Congress I worked to ensure every family had the assurance of care that mine had. I helped expand the Children's Health Insurance Program. I helped write and pass the Affordable Care Act. If confirmed, I'll work with you to continue this type of work and to address HHS's biggest challenges and that, of course, starts with COVID. The president has ambitious goals-- 100 million vaccine shots in arms in his first 100 days, increasing access to testing, sequencing the virus so we're prepared for the variants, reopening schools and businesses. HHS has a central role in meeting all of these goals safely and equitably.

- But some Republicans are criticizing Becerra's lack of experience as a public health official. That includes Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton, who has reportedly spent thousands on television ads opposing the nomination that are set to run up until the confirmation vote. Politico Pro health care reporter Alice Miranda Olstein joins me now from Washington with more. Hi there, Alice. So Republican lawmakers criticized the senator for what they see as a lack of relevant experience. What is his relevant experience, and how does it compare to previous HHS secretaries?

ALICE MIRANDA OLLSTEIN: So, as expected, Republicans hit him in the hearing for not having a medical background. But the vast majority of HHS secretaries in the agency's history have not been physicians. And the last who was a physician under President Trump, Tom Price, ended up resigning in scandal.

And so Democrats on the panel pointed this out and said that Becerra's experience as a member of the House of Representatives, helping draft major pieces of health policy, as well as his work as California's attorney general, defending some of those policies in courts, going after opioid manufacturers, going after drug companies and insurance companies, and really working on health care across the board has prepared him for this role, as well as the experience of managing California's massive Justice Department, which they say prepares him to run the massive health agency here in DC.

- So if confirmed, Becerra would face the significant challenge of overseeing the agency, spearheading pandemic response. What has he said specifically about things like vaccine rollout or reopening schools?

ALICE MIRANDA OLLSTEIN: So we didn't get a lot of specifics in the hearing. He committed to a range of general principles. He is very invested in ensuring racial equity in the vaccine rollout and other aspects of the pandemic response. As we know, there have been deep racial disparities in who has gotten sick and died from COVID. And he pointed to his own experiences, the children of immigrants, to say this is something he's very sensitive to and wants to work on. When it came to the question of school reopenings, which is something that several members on the panel brought up, he said that, look, this is really a local decision on when and how to reopen schools. But what the Federal government needs to do is provide science-based guidance and adequate resources to help them get there.

- Well, what was Becerra's involvement in California's pandemic response and the public response?

ALICE MIRANDA OLLSTEIN: So, yes, so this is something Republicans have brought up in the lead-up to the hearing in attack ads and in op-eds about Becerra, arguing that he shouldn't be the HHS secretary. They've claimed that he has been supporting California's lockdowns, restrictions on businesses, churches, restaurants, et cetera. Now, it's the job of the attorney general to defend the governor's policies in court.

The attorney general doesn't create those policies. And Becerra was simply doing his job defending those in court. We know that the governor of California is having political troubles around those same policies right now as well. But it really didn't come up that much in the hearing, which surprised me. Although, he has another confirmation hearing tomorrow in the Senate Finance Committee, and it may come up then.

- And Alice, conservatives have also expressed concerns about Becerra's views on abortion. Republican Senator Mitt Romney of Utah grilled him for voting against a ban on late term abortions. How did Becerra explain that decision?

ALICE MIRANDA OLLSTEIN: So he really stressed a desire to find common ground. But as Republicans at the hearing noted on some of these questions, there really isn't common ground. And Becerra is a longtime supporter of abortion rights and has pledged to uphold current laws as HHS Secretary.

A few questions came up about policies that are before the Biden Administration right now and how he would handle it. And again, we didn't get a lot of specifics. But I expect to see a lot of back and forth over questions about access to abortion medication, the abortion pill going forward, as well as questions about federal funding for clinics that provide abortions.

- All right. We'll be watching for that. Alice Miranda Ollstein. Alice, thank you very much.