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Becerra Nomination Moves to Full Senate After Panel’s Split Vote (1)

March 3, 2021, 4:16 PM; Updated: March 3, 2021, 4:51 PM

Xavier Becerra, President Joe Biden’s pick to lead the Department of Health and Human Services, will be considered by the full Senate after the Finance Committee split its vote on his nomination.

The Senate Finance Committee was split 14-14 along party lines on the nomination. Becerra’s nomination will now need four hours of debate and a majority vote by the Senate in order for it to be brought up for a final vote, according to Finance Committee spokesman Taylor Harvey.

He could face a close confirmation vote, particularly because as California’s attorney general he sparred with the Trump administration over key questions on Obamacare and abortion.

The Senate is equally split between Democrats and Republicans, and centrist Republicans like Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine.) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and anti-abortion Democrat Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) could mean the difference between being confirmed or rejected.

The decision on Becerra’s nomination comes at a crucial point for the nascent Biden administration. The death toll for the Covid-19 pandemic has passed the 500,000 mark, and the HHS’s key agencies are working with acting officials because almost all of their leaders still await Senate confirmation.

Becerra appeared before the Finance Committee and Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee last week.

Republicans had questioned Becerra’s qualifications, in particular his lack of medical expertise. However, few HHS secretaries have been doctors in recent decades. Meanwhile, Democrats argued that Becerra’s experience in leading the large California attorney general’s office and his work on the Affordable Care Act during his time as a member of Congress makes him a qualified candidate to lead the 80,000-person HHS.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Feb. 23 that he was all but certain to oppose Becerra’s nomination, calling him an unqualified pick and one with a highly partisan track record as California’s attorney general that frequently had him at odds with anti-abortion groups.

“If there is an effort to paint the Attorney General as some kind of inexperienced radical, it’s just not backed up by what the committee saw last week,” the committee’s chair, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), said Wednesday. “He respects those with whom he has differences of opinion, and he wants to find common ground with all members of this committee to solve big healthcare challenges.”

However, Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) said Wednesday of Becerra: “His qualifications to be HHS secretary seem to be minimal beyond suing HHS.” Cassidy said Becerra “displayed no familiarity” with the 340B drug discount program, Medicare part D drug costs, and other health issues.

And the committee’s top Republican, Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), said, “Significant concerns have been raised about Attorney General Becerra’s challenges to HHS’ authority to provide a conscience exemption from the Obamacare contraception coverage mandate and enforcement of the state’s restrictive actions, including a ban on indoor religious services that was rejected by the Supreme Court.”

Building on Private Health Insurance

Becerra last week assured senators that he would build on the existing private sector insurance scheme in the U.S. rather than push for Medicare for All, an idea he had championed as a member of the House.

Becerra served 12 terms in Congress and has spent the past four years as California attorney general. If confirmed, Becerra would be the first Latino to lead the Department of Health and Human Services.

Becerra, 62, was born in Sacramento. He was the first in his family to graduate from college. He completed his undergraduate and law degrees at Stanford University.

—With assistance from Alex Ruoff

(Updates with remarks from senators in paragraphs nine thru 11.)

To contact the reporter on this story: Shira Stein in Washington at sstein@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Fawn Johnson at fjohnson@bloombergindustry.com; Brent Bierman at bbierman@bloomberglaw.com; Karl Hardy at khardy@bloomberglaw.com

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