Biden’s top health nominee attracts early opposition from Senate GOP

Greg Nash

President-elect Joe Biden’s choice of California Attorney General Xavier Becerra (D) to head the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is running into early opposition from Senate Republicans.

GOP lawmakers are raising concerns about Becerra’s lack of professional experience in the health care sector, although he did sit on the House Ways and Means Committee, which has oversight of health issues, when he served in the House.

Another red flag for Republicans is Becerra’s aggressive resistance to Trump administration policies as the attorney general of California.

Becerra participated in nearly 100 lawsuits challenging the Trump administration and was recently dubbed “California’s anti-Trump attack dog” by The New York Times.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), an adviser to the Senate GOP leadership, questioned his lack of direct professional experience in the health care field.

“I think it would be controversial,” he said of Becerra’s nomination. “I think most of us feel like there should be some deference in the president-elect’s choice for his Cabinet, but some of these folks are pretty radical.”

Asked if he saw Becerra as radical, Cornyn replied: “Yeah.”

“I don’t know what his Health and Human Services credentials are. It’s not like [Health and Human Services Secretary] Alex Azar, who worked for pharma and had a health care background,” he added. Azar was a senior executive for the pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly and also served as HHS general counsel in the George W. Bush administration. 

Prior to being elected California’s attorney general in 2016, Becerra spent 24 years in the House, eventually becoming chairman of the House Democratic Caucus. Becerra, 62, would be the first Latino to head HHS. 

Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.), a member of the Senate Health Committee, which has jurisdiction over Becerra’s nomination, raised concerns about his backing for “Medicare for All” and support for Planned Parenthood.

Braun said “he’s got tons of other reasons I’m going to be uncomfortable with him.”

“He’s 100 percent supportive of Planned Parenthood. He is a Bernie plan endorser, Medicare for All. He has no health care experience,” he added. “All of that tells me that he basically is going to follow the dogma he’s been behind, a California approach to things.”

“I’m afraid he’s going to emphasize a government approach, only without embracing transparency, competition and some of the other things that will only work to bring costs down,” he said.

Becerra said in 2017 that he would “absolutely” back Medicare for All but has since signaled he would defer to Biden, who did not endorse the proposal spearheaded by liberal Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).

Becerra led a coalition of 21 states this year in filing a petition to the Supreme Court challenging the Trump administration’s Title X rule, which he warned had “upended the nation’s family planning network that serves low-income women and families across the country.” He has also emerged as one of the most ardent defenders of the 2010 Affordable Care Act, President Obama’s signature legislative achievement, which Republicans came close to repealing in 2017.

After the Trump Justice Department made the decision not to defend ObamaCare against a constitutional challenge led by Texas and other Republican-controlled states, Becerra took the role as lead defender. The Supreme Court heard arguments in California v. Texas last month.

Also this year he led a coalition of 22 state attorneys general who challenged a Mississippi law that prohibited doctors from providing abortion services past 15 weeks of pregnancy.

Senate Democratic Leader Charles Schumer (N.Y.), who served with Becerra in the House and later worked with him on immigration reform, applauded Biden’s choice Tuesday.

“Xavier Becerra, I knew him well, as he served in the House, and worked with him on immigration and many other issues and he’s a very, very astute political leader. He’s very, very bright. He’s focused and people like him. I think he’s an excellent choice,” he said.

Senate Republicans, who are expected to be in the majority next year unless Democrats win two runoff races in Georgia on Jan. 5, have yet to decide how much deference to give to Biden’s nominees.

Several GOP lawmakers have also raised serious objections to Biden’s choice to head the Office of Management and Budget, Neera Tanden, a close Hillary Clinton ally who has criticized multiple Republican senators on Twitter.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Tuesday he’s not yet focused on Biden’s Cabinet picks.

“All the discussion about who may come next to the Cabinet is something I’m not prepared to address yet. We’ve got two weeks of important business left to do, and that’s where I’m going to concentrate my time,” he said.

During an interview on “Fox and Friends” Tuesday, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) lambasted Becerra for his policy views and predicted he “will be the nation’s lockdown enforcer.”

Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) noted Becerra’s dogged defense of the Affordable Care Act.

“I don’t know much about him except his fight for ObamaCare, and the problem with that is ObamaCare is a big lie. It did the opposite of what it’s supposed to do. He’s going to keep defending the high cost of health care. We have to figure out how to get more people’s health care at a lower price,” Scott said.

But Scott said he hasn’t yet thought much about whether Biden’s nominees should be guaranteed floor votes, even if they are highly controversial.

“I don’t think it’s right, what Schumer did to not allow Trump to fill his administration,” he said, alluding to Democrats slow-walking Trump’s nominees.

Braun said he thinks Biden’s nominees deserve up-or-down votes, despite his strong misgivings about Becerra.

“I think anybody should deserve a vote. I wish we would vote on more stuff. I don’t mind taking tough votes,” he said.    

Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.) criticized Becerra’s lack of experience in the health care sector and that he’s never held a job dedicated solely to working on health policy.

“That’s a concern,” he said. “We’re going to have to look at that one carefully. I think we really expected there would be somebody in there with a health care background.”

Tags Bernie Sanders biden administration Chuck Schumer Hillary Clinton Joe Biden John Cornyn John Hoeven Mike Braun Mitch McConnell Neera Tanden Tom Cotton Xavier Becerra

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