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Biden health nominee faces first Senate test

Biden health nominee faces first Senate test
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President BidenJoe BidenTrump State Department appointee arrested in connection with Capitol riot FireEye finds evidence Chinese hackers exploited Microsoft email app flaw since January Biden officials to travel to border amid influx of young migrants MORE’s nominee to lead the massive federal health agency faced his first hearing in the Senate on Tuesday, with some Republicans indicating he doesn’t have the experience necessary for the job but others appearing to leave the door open to supporting him. 

Some Senate Republicans and outside conservative groups have ramped up criticism of Xavier BecerraXavier BecerraOvernight Health Care: Biden slams Texas, Mississippi for lifting coronavirus restrictions: 'Neanderthal thinking' | Senate panel splits along party lines on Becerra |Over 200K sign up for ACA plans during Biden special enrollment period Senate panel splits along party lines on Becerra GOP targets Manchin, Sinema, Kelly on Becerra MORE in the days leading up to his confirmation hearing, arguing he is an extremist who has no health care experience, making him unqualified to lead the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

“I’m not sure that you have the necessary experience or skills to do this job at this moment,” said Sen. Richard BurrRichard Mauze BurrRick Scott caught in middle of opposing GOP factions Bipartisan bill would ban lawmakers from buying, selling stocks Republicans, please save your party MORE (N.C.), the top Republican on the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, adding that he would keep an open mind.

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While the committee will not vote on Becerra's confirmation — the Senate Finance committee will — some of the members’ support will be crucial for his nomination to pass the Senate. 

Becerra must win the support of all 50 Senate Democrats to be confirmed by the Senate if he doesn’t get any votes from Republicans and Vice President Harris breaks a tie.

But eyes are also on moderate Republicans who have supported some of Biden’s other nominees, given the tight majority Democrats have in the Senate. 

Sen. Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyRon Johnson grinds Senate to halt, irritating many Romney's TRUST Act is a Trojan Horse to cut seniors' benefits Republicans, please save your party MORE (R-Utah) told Becerra on Tuesday, “I think we can reach common ground on many issues” except for abortion, but also didn’t indicate if he would support his nomination.

Democrats argue Becerra’s record is one of defending and protecting consumers as California’s attorney general by defending the Affordable Care Act (ACA) in court when the Trump administration refused to, challenging hospital consolidations that research shows lead to higher costs for patients, and suing pharmaceutical companies for allegedly fixing the prices of generic drugs.

“As California’s attorney general, he has proven himself as an executive leader by seeing one of the nation’s largest justice departments through one of the most challenging periods in recent history,” said Sen. Patty MurrayPatricia (Patty) Lynn MurrayBiden convenes bipartisan meeting on cancer research Pro-Choice Caucus asks Biden to remove abortion fund restrictions from 2022 budget Senate Democrats offer fresh support for embattled Tanden MORE (D-Wash.), chair of the committee. 

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“As attorney general he has fought for patients, not pharmaceutical companies. … He has fought to defend families’ health care in court," she added. "And as secretary he will work with Congress to make sure every patient can get quality, affordable care.”

Becerra appeared to respond to criticisms from Republicans that he doesn’t have the experience for the job, noting in his opening remarks that when he served in Congress he helped write and pass the ACA and as attorney general, he cracked down on Medicare and Medicaid fraud and sued opioid manufacturers for their role in the addiction and overdose crisis.

There is no requirement that HHS secretaries be medical professionals and most haven’t been. Only three physicians have led HHS since the agency was created in 1953 and the last one to serve — Trump nominee Tom PriceThomas (Tom) Edmunds PriceBiden health nominee faces first Senate test Focus on cabinet nominees' effectiveness and expertise, not just ideology Conspicuous by their absence from the Republican Convention MORE — resigned in 2017 after being accused of misusing taxpayer dollars. 

But some Republicans used his record to argue Becerra is inexperienced, unqualified and overly aggressive with the health care industry.

Sens. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsMurkowski votes with Senate panel to advance Haaland nomination OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Interior reverses Trump policy that it says restricted science | Collins to back Haaland's Interior nomination | Republicans press Biden environment nominee on Obama-era policy Republicans, please save your party MORE (Maine) and Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiHillicon Valley: YouTube to restore Trump's account | House-passed election bill takes aim at foreign interference | Senators introduce legislation to create international tech partnerships Senate votes to take up COVID-19 relief bill The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by ExxonMobil - Increased security on Capitol Hill amid QAnon's March 4 date MORE (Alaska), who both serve on the health committee and are among the most moderate Republicans, didn’t criticize Becerra or call him unqualified but did not indicate whether they plan to vote for him.

Murkowski said if Becerra is confirmed, she would encourage him to visit Alaska early on in his tenure.

Meanwhile, Sen. Bill CassidyBill CassidyTrump was unhinged and unchanged at CPAC Republicans, please save your party Senate panel splits along party lines on Becerra MORE (R-La.), a physician, asked: “What would you as the attorney think if I — the physician — were nominated to be the United States Attorney General?”

“You would say ‘that guy's not qualified’ ... So you can imagine the kind of concerns I have regarding your nomination," he said, but did not state if he would vote for Becerra.

Burr noted Becerra’s support for using march-in rights to withdraw exclusivity patents on drugs funded by the federal government if the drug company is deemed too expensive. 

“I’m not sure that you have the appropriate respect for the private sector and innovation and intellectual property needed to bring more exciting treatments and cures to save lives in this country,” Burr said.

Becerra didn’t shy away from his criticism of pharmaceutical companies, which have faced backlash in recent years for rising prices, especially for branded drugs. 

“I think, senator, we can all agree that the price that we're paying for some of these prescription drugs is far higher than it should be,” Becerra told Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersABC names new deputy political director, weekend White House correspondent Ron Johnson forces reading of 628-page Senate coronavirus relief bill on floor GOP pulling out all the stops to delay COVID-19 package MORE (I-Vt.)

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He later added that the U.S. should support drugmakers and “spur innovation,” but that some drugs are priced too high and patients need to come first.  

More conservative members of the committee hammered Becerra on issues like abortion, but he largely steered away from that debate by saying he would follow the laws in place.

Sen. Roger MarshallRoger W. MarshallPat Roberts joins lobbying firm weeks after Senate retirement Biden health nominee faces first Senate test Senate committee plans grid reliability hearing after Texas outages MORE (R-Kan.), an obstetrician, questioned Becerra about his support for deregulating Mifepristone, a pill used to end early pregnancies and treat miscarriages.

Becerra and others have called on the Food & Drug Administration to end requirements that Mifepristone be dispensed in person, particularly during a pandemic when people are staying home more to limit their exposure to COVID-19.

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists has long called for the end of the requirement, clashing with Marshall’s view.

“I just hate to see those drugs, let alone birth control pills for that matter, handed out like candy,” Marshall said.

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Republicans mostly had questions about health policy, from rural health care and drug prices to price transparency, organ donations, doctor shortages and telehealth.

Most of the criticism of Becerra came from Republicans who don’t serve on the committee.

Eleven Senate Republicans including Sens. Tom CottonTom Bryant CottonRepublicans blast Pentagon policy nominee over tweets, Iran nuclear deal The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Lawmakers face Capitol threat as senators line up votes for relief bill Garland's AG nomination delayed by GOP roadblocks MORE (Ark.) and Marsha BlackburnMarsha BlackburnRepublicans blast Pentagon policy nominee over tweets, Iran nuclear deal White House defends Biden's 'Neanderthal thinking' remark on masks Marsha Blackburn: Biden needs to 'rethink' comments about 'resilient' and 'resourceful' Neanderthals MORE (Tenn.) announced their opposition to Biden’s nominee for health secretary Monday, citing “no meaningful experience in health care, public health, large-scale logistics, or any other areas critical to meeting our present challenges.”

-Updated 2:36 p.m.