On Tuesday, February 23, and Wednesday, February 24, 2021, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra testified before the Senate HELP and Finance Committees in order to get a confirmation vote before the full Senate.
HELP Committee Chair Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) offered high praise for the former Congressman by saying, “Given the urgency of this crisis, I’m hopeful that after today’s hearing and the Finance Committee hearing tomorrow, the Senate will move quickly to confirm Attorney General Becerra. Attorney General Becerra has the experience and the principles needed for this important role. He certainly knows how to work with Congress.”
HELP Committee Ranking Member Senator Richard Burr (R-NC) was more reserved in the opening, stating, “I’m not sold yet. I’m not sure that you have the necessary experience or skills to do this job. At this moment, I’m not sure that you have the appropriate respect for the private sector and innovation and intellectual property needed to bring more exciting treatments and cures to save lives in this country…you have an opportunity today and tomorrow in public hearings to prove that that expertise is there. I told you I would remain open for this hearing and tomorrow’s Finance hearing…”
Attorney General 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.
HELP Committee members focused on a range of HHS issues from handling COVID-19, expanding health care, drug treatment, abortion, and prescription drug pricing. On Wednesday, the Senate Finance Committee picked up the process. Of the two committees, only the Finance Committee casts a vote on his confirmation.
Chairman Ron Wyden (D-OR) opened with comments and questions focused on the health disparities within communities of color and how Becerra would tackle the problem. Becerra said that we needed better data to track the issue, greater outreach, coordination with community leadership, and focusing on the social determinants of health.
Finance Committee members focused on their specific areas of interest, with several Republicans raising questions on abortion, religious liberty, and whether or not Becerra would support “Medicare for All.” Becerra avoided any real specifics on abortion, which has been an attack line for many of his opponents, and he indicated that he would follow the President’s lead on health care. Several members, including Senator Stabenow (D-MI) and Senator Wyden, focused on mental health issues, Senator Grassley (R-IA) raised his concerns over prescription drug prices, and Senator Menendez (D-NJ) raised his support for home visiting.
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. The last doctor approved for Secretary was Congressman Tom Price (R-GA), who resigned seven months into his secretaryship due to ethical questions on his travel expenses.
The Committee hearings adjourned, with members given two days to ask further questions. It is unclear how many Republicans will vote against his nomination, but it is not expected to be enough. In a sign of the political times, Becerra has been targeted by some more conservative members of Congress led by Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR). He has allocated (through a political action committee) a reported “tens of thousands of dollars” of campaign funds on digital ads that have as their targeted Senator Maggie Hassan (D-NH) and Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.). Some groups opposed to abortion have also targeted him for their opposition.
Becerra, currently the California Attorney General, was selected by President Biden in December. As Attorney General, he has led an effort by several attorneys general in defense of the ACA when that case was argued before the Supreme Court this past November. The Trump Administration had supported the repeal before the Court. That position was reversed, with the Biden Administration withdrawing that position.
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.