Republicans see Becerra as next target in confirmation wars

Senate Republicans are setting their sights on California Attorney General Xavier BecerraXavier BecerraFlorida asks Supreme Court to block CDC's limits on cruise ship industry White House announces new funds for COVID-19 testing and vaccination amid delta surge Lawmakers introduce bipartisan Free Britney Act MORE, President BidenJoe BidenHouse Republican calls second bout of COVID-19 'far more challenging' Conflicting school mask guidance sparks confusion Biden: Pathway to citizenship in reconciliation package 'remains to be seen' 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 TandenThe Hill's Morning Report - Will Schumer back down on his deadline? Biden's budget vacancy raises eyebrows White House releases staff salaries showing narrowed gender pay gap 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 CassidyBipartisan group says it's still on track after setback on Senate floor The Hill's Morning Report - High-profile COVID-19 infections spark new worries GOP centrists call on Schumer to delay infrastructure vote 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 SchumerCould Andrew Cuomo — despite scandals — be re-elected because of Trump? Democratic negotiator: 'I believe we will' have infrastructure bill ready on Monday DACA court ruling puts weight of immigration reform on Democrats MORE (D-N.Y.) can get him confirmed on a straight party-line vote.

Two key Republican centrists, Sens. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsTransit funding, broadband holding up infrastructure deal The Hill's Morning Report - Infrastructure vote fails; partisan feud erupts over Jan. 6 panel Senate falling behind on infrastructure MORE (Maine) and Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiWhy Biden's Interior Department isn't shutting down oil and gas Biden signs bill to bolster crime victims fund Bipartisan group says it's still on track after setback on Senate floor 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 McConnellGrassley pressured to run as Democrats set sights on Iowa House Democrats grow frustrated as they feel ignored by Senate Democrats question GOP shift on vaccines 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 TrumpRonny Jackson, former White House doctor, predicts Biden will resign McCarthy: Pelosi appointing members of Jan. 6 panel who share 'pre-conceived narrative' Kinzinger denounces 'lies and conspiracy theories' while accepting spot on Jan. 6 panel 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 ManchinTo break the corporate tax logjam, tax overinflated CEO pay Six months in, two challenges could define Biden's presidency DACA court ruling puts weight of immigration reform on Democrats 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 CaseyLawmakers introduce bipartisan Free Britney Act A plan to address the growing orphaned wells crisis Free Britney movement calls for congressional hearing ahead of DC rally 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 SasseSasse calls China's Xi a 'coward' after Apple Daily arrest Defunct newspaper's senior editor arrested in Hong Kong Murkowski: Trump has 'threatened to do a lot' to those who stand up to him 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 LankfordAbbott slams Ben & Jerry's for Palestine support: 'Disgraceful' Democrat stalls Biden's border nominee Republican calls on Oklahoma to ban Ben & Jerry's 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 PerryFormer Texas Supreme Court justice jumps into state's AG Republican primary race Texas governor signs 'fetal heartbeat' abortion bill Tomorrow's special election in Texas is the Democrats' best House hope in 2021 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.”