WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden’s nominee to lead the powerful Department of Health and Human Services is preparing for two days of contentious hearings in a divided Senate, with allies fanning out to defend him as Republicans mobilize to tank his nomination.
If he is confirmed, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, a former member of Congress, will have the daunting task of steering administration policy on the coronavirus pandemic and orchestrating Biden’s goal to get health care to more Americans. He would also be the first Latino HHS secretary.
Becerra will appear before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, or HELP, Committee on Tuesday morning before he faces the Finance Committee on Wednesday.
Both committees, which have jurisdiction over health care issues, are evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans. The HELP Committee includes three potentially pivotal Republican votes, Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Mitt Romney of Utah, as well as rabble-rousers like Rand Paul of Kentucky, who may seek to stir the pot.
Becerra has spoken with almost half the Senate, including Collins, Murkowski and Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., a person familiar with the conversations said. Manchin, who could be a pivotal Democratic voter, recently came out against Biden’s pick to run the Office of Management and Budget, throwing her confirmation into doubt.
“I understand the enormous challenges before us and our solemn responsibility to be faithful stewards of an agency that touches almost every aspect of our lives,” Becerra will say in his opening statement while highlighting his family’s immigration story from Mexico. “I’m humbled by the task. And I’m ready for it.”
HELP Committee Chair Patty Murray, D-Wash., will praise Becerra as a proven “executive leader” who has fought for patients and families’ health care.
“We all want the pandemic to end — which means we all should want the Biden-Harris administration to succeed, and we should be getting qualified nominees like Attorney General Becerra on the job as quickly as possible,” Murray plans to say in her opening statement, according to prepared remarks from her office.
Becerra’s case before the Senate will include his “decades of experience with health care policy” as a member of Congress, his work on drug prices and confronting opioid manufacturers and his fight to protect the Affordable Care Act in court, said a member of Biden’s confirmation team who discussed strategy on condition of anonymity.
It won’t be easy. Becerra is among the few Biden nominees whom Republicans opponents are zeroing in on and believe they have a chance to block.
A letter Monday led by Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, which was signed by 10 other Senate Republicans, voiced “grave concerns” about Becerra’s nomination, citing his past support for “Medicare for All” and his views on liberalizing the immigration system and protecting abortion rights and his skepticism toward religious-based exemptions from laws.
“We ask that you put our country over radical partisan objectives by withdrawing Mr. Becerra’s nomination for HHS Secretary,” read the letter, which was co-signed by dozens of House Republicans.
Most of the 11 Senate signers are on neither committee with jurisdiction, but they will have votes in the full chamber, where Becerra will need 51 votes. If the Senate splits evenly, he can be confirmed with the tiebreaking vote of Vice President Kamala Harris.
Biden’s team has been touting a wave of endorsements or laudatory statements from progressive groups like the abortion-rights group NARAL and Planned Parenthood, medical industry organizations like the American Hospital Association and prominent figures like Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
Biden transition spokesman Andrew Bates said, “Xavier Becerra has decades of health care policy experience, worked with Republicans and Democrats to expand access to Covid treatments and take on opioid manufacturers while leading the largest state department of justice in the country, and has a strong record of fighting to lower costs for patients.”