Xavier Becerra, HHS nominee, largely escapes Republican attacks

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WASHINGTON — With measured, circumspect remarks, Xavier Becerra deflected 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 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 background to help protect 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
Xavier Becerra, President Biden's nominee for health and human services secretary, at his confirmation hearing on Tuesday. (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,” he 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, referring to 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 queries from Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, 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.

Mitt Romney
Sen. Mitt Romney. (Sarah Silbiger/Pool via Reuters)

The exchange with Romney was indicative of Becerra’s willingness 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-Maine, on reopening schools, an issue that has quickly emerged as a problematic one for the administration. Becerra made no assurances, describing reopening schools as a local issue over which the federal government had little sway.

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

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

Republicans who had been skeptical of the nominee would have found little reassurance in Tuesday’s proceedings; at the same time, they would also have found few opportunities to build their case against him.

“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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