Senate panel splits over Xavier Becerra, Biden’s pick to lead Health and Human Services

    WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 24: Xavier Becerra, nominee for Secretary of Health and Human Services, testifies at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Finance Committee on Capitol Hill February 24, 2021 in Washington, DC. If confirmed, Becerra would be the first Latino secretary of HHS. He was previously Attorney General of California. (Photo by Michael Reynolds-Pool/Getty Images)

    WASHINGTON — A Senate panel divided evenly along party lines Wednesday over the nomination of Xavier Becerra, President Biden’s pick to lead the Department of Health and Human Services.

    The 14-14 vote came in the Senate Finance Committee, with Democrats in support of advancing Becerra’s nomination and Republicans opposed to sending it to the full Senate.

    The nomination of Becerra, who currently serves as California’s attorney general, will still head to the Senate floor. But the tied committee vote means Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) will need to file a motion to discharge the nomination for a vote by the full Senate.

    Democrats narrowly control the Senate, where they hold 50 seats, including two independents who caucus with Democrats. Ties on the Senate floor are broken by Vice President Kamala Harris, a Democrat.

    If confirmed, Becerra will lead the agency overseeing federal health policy, a key role amid the coronavirus pandemic.

    Republicans have criticized Becerra, an attorney, as lacking experience in the health care sector. Before becoming California’s attorney general in 2017, Becerra served more than two decades in the U.S. House of Representatives.

    In that legislative role, Becerra sat on the powerful House Ways and Means subcommittee overseeing health issues, where he was involved in crafting health care legislation, including the Affordable Care Act.

    Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) described Becerra as a “very good” attorney general, but said past health secretaries have had more experience running the programs that the Health and Human Services agency oversees.

    “His qualifications to be HHS secretary seem to be minimal beyond suing HHS,” Cassidy said, referencing Becerra’s lawsuits against the Trump administration.

    The last Health and Human Services secretary also was a lawyer by training. Alex Azar, tapped by former President Donald Trump in 2017, had served as general counsel and as a deputy secretary for the agency, and as a lobbyist and later executive for U.S. drugmaker Eli Lilly.

    Democrats have defended Becerra as qualified for the role through his policy work and managerial experience, and have emphasized the urgency of confirming a secretary to lead the critical agency.

    “The country is in the middle of a public-health nightmare, and the American people need and deserve a Senate-confirmed leader running the Department of Health and Human Services as soon as possible,” Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said.

    Any opposition from Democrats on the Senate floor could sink Becerra’s nomination. One conservative grassroots group, Heritage Action, has begun a $500,000 ad campaign, pressuring Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Mark Kelly and Krysten Sinema of Arizona to oppose Becerra.

    The ad running in Arizona references Becerra’s suit against the Trump administration’s proposed rule to expand religious exemptions for employers who do not want to pay for contraceptives through their insurance plans. Several Republicans cited his work on cases involving abortion in opposing Becerra.

    Committee members voting Wednesday in support of Becerra’s nomination included Democratic Sens. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan; Ben Cardin of Maryland; Sherrod Brown of Ohio; Michael Bennet of Colorado; Bob Casey of Pennsylvania; Mark Warner of Virginia; and Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada.

    Republican senators on the panel, who opposed Becerra, included Sens. Chuck Grassley of Iowa; Richard Burr of North Carolina; Rob Portman of Ohio; Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania; Bill Cassidy of Louisiana; and Steve Daines of Montana.

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    Laura Olson
    Laura covers the nation's capital as a senior reporter for States Newsroom, a network of nonprofit outlets that includes Ohio Capital Journal. Her areas of coverage include politics and policy, lobbying, elections, and campaign finance.