Former California Attorney General Confirmed to HHS Post

Xavier Becerra will lead the Department of Health and Human Services after squeaking through his Senate confirmation in a 50-49 vote.

Xavier Becerra testifies during a Senate Finance Committee hearing on his nomination to be secretary of Health and Human Services on Feb. 24, 2021. (Greg Nash/Pool via AP)

WASHINGTON (CN) — By a party-line vote Thursday, the U.S. Senate confirmed former California Attorney General Xavier Becerra to head the Department of Health and Human Services.

It was a close call for Becerra, 62, who cleared his Senate hurdle by a 50-49 vote. He is the first Latino to lead HHS and a staunch defender of the Affordable Care Act. He joined a Supreme Court brief filed by the House of Representatives last year in defense of the Obama-era health care law.

Senator Susan Collins of Maine was the only Republican who voted in favor of his confirmation Thursday. Democratic Senator Mazie Hirono of Hawaii did not vote.

Becerra helped pass the Affordable Care Act as a House Democrat who represented California in 2009 and 2010. He will now oversee an agency with more than 80,000 employees.

From the Senate floor Thursday, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer noted Becerra’s nomination immediately drew criticisms from Republicans. From the moment President Joe Biden announced the nomination, he said, Republicans tried to derail it.  

“Their arguments almost verge on the ridiculous,” the New York Democrat said. “They complain loudly that he has no experience as a medical professional, even though Republicans voted in lock step to install Alex Azar, a pharmaceutical executive who raised drug prices and tried to undermine our nation’s health law, as the previous HHS secretary.”

He added, “Becerra, by contrast, has decades of [experience] standing up for working- and middle-class Americans in Congress, fighting to protect and expand Medicaid and working to safeguard our health care system from attacks from the Trump administration.”

Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden equated Becerra’s nomination to shifting public health policy from reverse to drive on Thursday, saying former President Donald Trump’s administration had only inhibited progress on public health.

Lowering health care costs is essential to triaging a nation beset by Covid-19 infections and a $3.8 trillion public health care cost, Wyden said.

But Becerra’s biggest focus, Wyden said, would obviously need to be confronting the pandemic. Central to that effort will be mitigating vaccine hesitancy, an issue discussed by lawmakers on Wednesday, and continuing to distribute vaccines to millions of Americans.

“Attorney General Becerra is going to be laser-focused on the key priorities for the days ahead,” Wyden said. “We all know that at the heart of that agenda is making it possible to end this pandemic.”

Republicans like Wyoming Senator John Barrasso argued Becerra was both unfit and unqualified to assume the HHS role. Barrasso and other GOP senators said the former attorney general was a “career politician,” not a health professional.

“A global pandemic is no time for on-the-job health care training. The secretary must be ready on day one,” Barrasso said. “Attorney General Becerra is not only unqualified, I say he is radically liberal in his positions. Attorney General Becerra is the most left-wing nominee for this job, in my opinion, in history. He’s an aggressive culture warrior for the radical left.” 

Barrasso also took issue with Becerra’s stance on abortions, saying he refuses to in any way restrict access to the procedure.

“Attorney General Becerra is a radical liberal with a whole host of issues,” he said. “As attorney general of California, he sued the Trump administration over 120 different times…That’s quite a few. This includes filing nine lawsuits on the very last day of President Trump’s administration.”

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