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Republicans see Becerra as next target in confirmation wars

Senate Republicans are setting their sights on California Attorney General Xavier BecerraXavier BecerraBecerra calls on Hispanic Americans to sign up for ACA Overnight Health Care: All adults in US now eligible for COVID-19 vaccine | White House launches media blitz to promote vaccines Top House Republicans ask Harris for meeting on border MORE, President BidenJoe BidenCornyn, Sinema to introduce bill aimed at addressing border surge Harris to travel to Northern Triangle region in June Biden expected to formally recognize Armenian Genocide: report MORE’s choice to head the Department of Health and Human Services, as their next target in the battle over Biden’s Cabinet.

Republicans, on the cusp of quashing Neera TandenNeera TandenFive ways an obscure Senate ruling could change Washington 2024 GOP White House hopefuls lead opposition to Biden Cabinet White House delays release of budget plan MORE’s nomination to head the White House budget office, are looking for their next scalp and see Becerra as a tough vote for Democrats.

They argue that Becerra, a Democrat who served for 24 years in the House before becoming California’s attorney general in 2017, lacks the medical or administrative background needed to lead the nation’s health agencies in the midst of a pandemic.

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“I would’ve been willing to vote for somebody, absolutely, but you’ve got to at least know something about the subject matter,” said Sen. Bill CassidyBill CassidySenate GOP crafts outlines for infrastructure counter proposal Bottom line Calls grow for national paid family leave amid pandemic MORE (R-La.), who said Becerra seemed at a loss answering his questions before the Senate Health and Finance committees this week.

“If I as a doctor was appointed to be the attorney general of the United States of America, what would you think? That’s kind of odd,” said Cassidy, a former medical doctor who doesn’t have a law degree.

Cassidy said Becerra ducked and weaved when asked at hearings this week about Medicare’s 340B drug pricing program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and pharmacy benefit managers.

“There are three major buckets in HHS and I asked him questions that were not ideological. I asked him questions in each of those three buckets and none of the three did he answer. He gave an answer that was a non-answer, which indicates, ‘I don’t have a good answer so I’m going to duck and weave,’” he said after Becerra testified before the two committees.

Senate Republican aides acknowledge it will be tough to derail Becerra, who could pick up GOP votes. No Democratic opposition has yet emerged, and Senate Majority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerOn The Money: Yellen touts 'whole-of-economy' plan to fight climate change | Senate GOP adopts symbolic earmark ban, digs in on debt limit Hillicon Valley: Tech companies duke it out at Senate hearing | Seven House Republicans vow to reject donations from Big Tech Lawmakers reintroduce bill to invest billions to compete with China in tech MORE (D-N.Y.) can get him confirmed on a straight party-line vote.

Two key Republican centrists, Sens. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsSenate locks in hate crimes deal, setting up Thursday passage Bipartisan group of senators holds immigration talks amid border surge Senate GOP keeps symbolic earmark ban MORE (Maine) and Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiHarris casts tiebreaking vote to advance Biden nominee Bipartisan group of senators holds immigration talks amid border surge Senate GOP keeps symbolic earmark ban MORE (Alaska), haven’t yet said how they will vote, but they did not criticize Becerra during his testimony before the Health Committee.  

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Collins, however, said Thursday she was impressed by Becerra’s performance before the Health panel and indicated she could vote for his nomination once she and the nominee hammer out an understanding on school closures during the pandemic.

“I had a very good conversation with him prior to the hearing, thought he did well at his hearing, but we have been swapping phone calls on an issue,” Collins told reporters Thursday.

She said she has more to discuss with Becerra on “school openings.”

But other Republicans seem to be rallying against Becerra. 

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellWhen it comes to Georgia's voting law, keep politics out of business Pelosi to offer even split on 9/11-style commission to probe Capitol riot Senate GOP crafts outlines for infrastructure counter proposal MORE (R-Ky.) on Tuesday called Biden’s nomination of Becerra “a puzzling selection for this critical post.”

McConnell noted that Becerra as attorney general challenged the Department of Health and Human Services decision under former President TrumpDonald TrumpUS gives examples of possible sanctions relief to Iran GOP lawmaker demands review over FBI saying baseball shooting was 'suicide by cop' House passes bill aimed at stopping future Trump travel ban MORE to expand religious exemptions for employers that do not want to cover contraceptives through their insurance plans.

The GOP leader also cited Becerra’s defense in court of a California law, the FACT Act, requiring pregnancy crisis centers established by pro-life organizations to post notices informing women who visit them of the services of state-funded abortion and contraceptive services. The law was later struck down in a 5-4 Supreme Court decision.

“His chief passion project in California seemed to be using the force of government to attack Americans’ religious liberty and freedom of conscience,” McConnell said.

Republicans would need at least one Democrat to oppose Becerra, and their best bet is likely centrist Sen. Joe ManchinJoe ManchinHouse Democrats eye passing DC statehood bill for second time Biden dispatches Cabinet members to sell infrastructure plan On The Money: Treasury creates hub to fight climate change | Manchin throws support behind union-backed PRO Act | Consumer bureau rolls out rule to bolster CDC eviction ban MORE (D-W.Va.), who opposed Tanden and has not yet announced how he will vote on Becerra’s nomination.

Democrats for Life, a group that favors limits on abortion rights, is putting pressure on Manchin and Sen. Bob CaseyRobert (Bob) Patrick CaseyCongress can help Americans living with disabilities by passing the ABLE Age Adjustment Act Moderates' 0B infrastructure bill is a tough sell with Democrats Democrats divided on gun control strategy MORE (Pa.), the two Senate Democrats most aligned with their cause, to oppose Becerra’s nomination.

Manchin and Casey were the only two Democrats who voted for a budget amendment sponsored by Sen. Ben SasseBen SasseSenate GOP keeps symbolic earmark ban On The Money: Senate GOP faces post-Trump spending brawl | Senate confirms SEC chief Gensler to full five-year term | Left-leaning group raises concerns about SALT cap repeal Senate GOP faces post-Trump spending brawl MORE (R-Neb.) earlier this month to prohibit health care practitioners from failing to do everything in their power to care for a fetus who survives an abortion or attempted abortion.

A group of Republicans held a press conference Thursday afternoon to highlight their opposition to Becerra.

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“We have looked seriously at the Xavier Becerra nomination and do not see him being qualified for this task nor the right person for this,” said Sen. James LankfordJames Paul LankfordRubio and bipartisan group of senators push to make daylight saving time permanent Senate inches toward COVID-19 vote after marathon session Ron Johnson grinds Senate to halt, irritating many MORE (R-Okla.), who led the press conference.

“Obviously he’s an attorney by trade in the middle of a pandemic. This is not the time to be able to put an attorney leading Health and Human Services,” Lankford said.

“We also have other issues like the issues about life and about conscience,” he added, citing Becerra’s defense of California’s FACT Act.   

Several Senate Republicans have sent a letter to the White House asking Biden to rescind Becerra’s nomination.

Eleven GOP senators and 64 House Republicans wrote a letter to Biden on Monday asking him “to put our country over radical partisan objectives by withdrawing Mr. Becerra’s nomination.”

“Becerra’s lack of qualifications is particularly alarming given the important role the HHS Secretary will play in efforts to develop and distribute vaccines, coordinate research efforts, and draft critical regulations to carry out recovery legislation,” they wrote.

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Schumer defended Becerra in a December floor speech, calling him eminently qualified.

“He has a particularly long track record as an advocate of women’s health. As attorney general of California, he became one of the foremost legal experts on our nation’s health-care laws,” he said.

Schumer said it was “rich” for Republicans to attack Becerra’s qualifications after they supported Rick PerryRick PerryOvernight Energy: Michigan reps reintroduce measure for national 'forever chemicals' standard |  White House says gas tax won't be part of infrastructure bill Trump alumni launch America First Policy Institute Senators urge Energy chief to prioritize cybersecurity amid growing threats MORE, former President Trump’s pick for secretary of Energy.

The Democratic leader noted that Perry “wanted to abolish” the Energy Department “before learning it maintained the nation’s nuclear stockpile and that he would be in charge of it.”