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The Senate Finance Committee split 14-14 on a party-line vote today on whether California Attorney General Xavier Becerra should be the next Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS).
Becerra’s nomination now goes on to the full Senate, where Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) will decide whether to press for a vote. Becerra must secure the backing of all 50 Democrats, and at least one Republican, or Vice President Kamala Harris will be called in to cast a tie-breaking vote.
All of the Finance Committee Republicans voted against Becerra, while every Democrat said he had the experience and the knowledge to help lead the nation out of the COVID-19 pandemic and address rising drug costs and insurers’ continued flouting of mental health parity laws.
The American Medical Association has endorsed Becerra.
Republicans on the Finance Committee and on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee — both of which weighed the nomination in earlier hearings — have expressed concerns about what they called Becerra’s attacks on antiabortion policies and on religious liberty. Some Republicans also said he was not qualified for the position.
Senator Bill Cassidy (R-LA) said before the confirmation vote that Becerra is a “very good attorney general,” but “his qualifications to be HHS Secretary seem to be minimal beyond suing HHS,” and said he has no experience administering programs such as the ones overseen by the federal agency. “Being HHS Secretary should not be a learn-on-the-job position,” Cassidy said, adding that he believed Becerra would be too dependent on advisers.
Meanwhile, Politico reports that a conservative-leaning think tank, The Heritage Foundation, is sponsoring anti-Becerra ads in West Virginia and Arizona, focusing on his record on abortion rights, gun violence, and immigration. The antiabortion Susan B. Anthony List is also seeking to stop Becerra’s confirmation, and has mobilized members to call senators.
Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-OR) said that Becerra has stated repeatedly that he’s willing to respect the law when it comes to abortion and conscience. “Disagreement on some issues alone is not a good enough reason to oppose a nominee as qualified and knowledgeable as AG Becerra,” Wyden said.
Accountable.US, a nonpartisan watchdog group, said that Republicans oppose Becerra in part because of his willingness to challenge the healthcare and pharmaceutical industries. The organization reports that, collectively, Republicans on the committee have accepted $36.1 million from the health sector, including $9.6 million from drug makers.
Mike Crapo (R-ID), the committee’s highest-ranking Republican, is one of the industry benefactors, said the group.
Crapo said that despite voting against Becerra, if he is confirmed, he would work with him “to permanently expand telehealth in a fiscally responsible way; to update payment systems based on lessons learned from COVID-19 flexibilities; and to find bipartisan solutions to shore up Medicare’s finances.”
Alicia Ault is a Lutherville, Maryland-based freelance journalist whose work has appeared in publications including Smithsonian.com, the New York Times, and the Washington Post. You can find her on Twitter @aliciaault .