On Thursday, March 18, 2021, the Senate gave final approval to California Attorney General Xavier Becerra to become the Secretary of Health and Human Services. The narrow vote of 50 to 49 represents an attempt of some interest groups to criticize the nominee on issues ranging from his administrative experience to whether or not he was too liberal. All Democrats and Republican Senator Susan Collins (R-ME) voted for him with Senator Mazie Hirono (D-HA) away from the Senate on an emergency matter.
In his earlier testimony Becerra told senators, that, “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 the Affordable Care Act. From the Ways and Means Committee, I fought to strengthen and modernize Medicare and how we finance it.”
He spoke to his ongoing advocacy and support for access to health care but also highlighted how in addition to the “health” in Health and Human Services, he would focus on human services and mentioned his concern for children in foster care, Head Start, and child care. He referenced his concern for foster care and the expansion of child care in both hearings.
The main criticism by Republican members aside from ideological differences seemed to focus on “experience.” Several senators highlighted the need to have a health background. A Washington Post report indicated that three of HHS’s approximately dozen confirmed secretaries had had medical degrees in the department’s four decades since it became the Department of Health and Human Services.
Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), who voted against him, told Roll Call newspaper, “ In addition to finding out whether these nominees have the qualifications to do it, you also have to look at: Do they have the ability to make things happen, working with the legislative body, And that’s part of the criteria.” Senator James Lankford (R-OK) was concerned about Becerra’s ethics, saying that he would be watching to see if he recuses himself from certain cases that he sued the Trump Administration over as the California Attorney General. That criticism was somewhat ironic in that President Trumps’ first HHS Secretary, former Congressman Tom Price was challenged on some of his ethics. At the time of his appointment there was criticism on whether he had violated new House ethics requirements on stock purchases. He was also approved along party lines 52 to 47 with all Republicans voting for him. Secretary Price resigned seven months into his secretaryship due to ethical questions on his travel expenses.
Becerra was a member of Congress serving on the House Ways and Means Committee, including a stint on the Subcommittee on Human Resources, the subcommittee (now called the Worker and Family Support Subcommittee) that deals with child welfare issues.