The U.S. Senate confirmed California Attorney General Xavier Becerra Thursday as President Joe Biden’s health secretary, to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) in a narrow 50-49 vote.
Among one of the last of President Biden’s nominees to be confirmed, Becerra, who was nominated to HHS in December, faced an unusually slow confirmation process due to near total Republican opposition in the Senate.
Senate Republicans went after Becerra’s support for medical for all, his views supporting abortion, and his 122 lawsuits against the Trump administration on behalf of California. One of the lawsuits that particularly hung up Republican Senators was over an ObamaCare religious exemption policy mandating contraception and abortion coverage.
“The most significant health-related experience on the nominee’s record are his efforts to wield the legal system against religious sisters to make them violate their faith and conscience,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) on Wednesday.
Another big charge lodged against Becerra was having no experience in the health care field, an argument that even other Democrats had a hard time defending.
“You’re a very highly trained attorney – great, impeccable credentials,” noted Senator Bill Cassidy (R-LA) last month. “I’m a physician. What would you, as the attorney, think if I, the physician, were nominated to be the United States attorney general as opposed to Merrick Garland? You would say, ‘Ah, the guy’s not qualified.'”
However, Democrats leveraged these complaints by pointing out Becerra’s experience as state AG, and before that, as a member of Congress, as more than adequate for the HHS. Democrats also pointed out that Becerra has a lot of experience over rolling back actions taken by the Trump administration, as well as helping lead the COVID-19 recovery fight and providing the needed leadership in the current migrant and migrant children border crisis.
“From the moment he was announced as President Biden’s pick for HHS, Senate Republicans have tried to derail his nomination,” said Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) on Thursday. “They complain loudly that he has no direct experience as a medical professional, even though Republicans voted in lockstep 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.”
Urgency over a pick that deals directly with the COVID-19 crisis was also given as a reason by many Democrats to confirm him quickly.
“After four years of attacks on families’ health care from President Trump, after a year of this pandemic ravaging our nation, the challenges that lie ahead of us, especially when it comes to health care, are numerous, enormous and absolutely urgent,” added Senator Patty Murray (D-WA). “We have our work cut out for us. But in Attorney General Becerra — we have a secretary of Health who is up to the job.”
Up until early March, Senate Democrats did not have enough votes for a confirmation due to the reluctance of Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) and centrist Republicans to approve Becerra. However, Becerra managed to convince Manchin and Senator Susan Collins (R-ME) in recent weeks by giving his support for healthcare in rural areas, including support for more assistance for opioid addiction centers and the expansion of telemedicine. Becerra’s commitment to lowering drug prices also won them over, in particular Senator Collins.
Becerra’s confirmation leads to a new battle for Attorney General in California
Their support led to the 50-49 vote on Thursday in favor of Becerra.
“CADEM is proud to have another California Democratic leader at the center of the fight against COVID-19,” said the California Democratic Party (CADEM) in a statement on Thursday. “During such a critical time, Xavier Becerra’s proven leadership is exactly what we need to lead the Department of Health and Human Services, expand equitable access to vaccination and get Californians back to work.
“Becerra has always been at the forefront – fighting for underserved communities, healthcare and justice. He took on the Trump administration and their agenda to roll back protections for workers, he defended the Affordable Care Act against Republican attempts to end it and he has always held strong to protecting women’s health. As the first Latino to helm the Dept of HHS, he has been and will continue to be a stalwart champion for reimagining and rebuilding a more equitable health care system that meets the needs of the people.”
Becerra’s departure will now leave the Attorney General’s position open in California. Governor Gavin Newsom is expected to make a decision soon on who is to be elevated to the slot. However, identity politics has largely taken over the debate of who gets in, with many Asian-Americans fighting for an Asian-American candidate to get in due to a recent rise of attacks against Asian Americans in California and the need for someone who closely understands the issue. However, other minority groups have also put up their own candidates as well, citing their own community needs for someone in the AG position.
“The California Association of Black Lawyers, which represents approximately 6000 Black attorneys, judges, law professors and law students, submitted the names of three accomplished African American attorneys to the California Legislative Black Caucus as possible candidates for the state’s soon-to-be open Attorney General position,” the Sacramento Observer reported.
However, Congressman Adam Schiff’s (D-CA) lobbying for the spot has also garnered many big names supporting him, including Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA).
“All eyes are on Newsom now, as if he really needed more on him now,” Washington-based political researcher Matt Thomas told the Globe on Thursday. “Now Newsom has the decision to pander to state Democrats by picking Schiff, to pander to minority groups again by picking Bonta, or another API (Asian-Pacific Islander) candidate, or he could just go local and pick Steinberg. Whoever he chooses will be strategic, especially when it comes to the recall and his political future after being Governor, and will also open up yet another position. SoCal, Oakland, or Sacramento will be seeing another special election if one of those three are picked, so that will be under consideration too. It’s going to be a surprise no matter who it is at this point.”
Becerra is expected to be sworn in as HHS Secretary on Friday, with Newsom expected to pick a new Attorney General by next week.
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