WASHINGTON - California Attorney General Xavier Becerra faced the Senate Committee on Health, Education Labor & Pensions for his confirmation hearing as the nominee for Health and Human Services secretary.
If confirmed, Becerra would be the first Latino appointed to the role. As HHS secretary, he would play a crucial role in combating the COVID-19 pandemic. The U.S. surpassed 500,000 COVID-19 deaths on Monday.
Becerra faces two days of contentious Senate hearings and is set to testify before the Senate Finance Committee on Wednesday, which will vote on advancing his nomination.
Prior to the hearing, some GOP lawmakers said Becerra, a former attorney with no medical experience, is unqualified tohelm HHS, a $1.4 trillion agency with a broad portfolio, during the pandemic.
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Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., chairwoman of the HELP Committee, pushed back on the criticism when she opened the confirmation hearing, arguing , "While the Trump administration ignored crises that impact public health like this pandemic, climate change and systemic racism, Attorney General Becerra has taken them on."
"While the days of President Trump's head-in-the-sand approach to crisis management are thankfully over, this pandemic isn't," she continued. "We need to work with the Biden administration to quickly take additional steps on COVID relief and move swiftly to make sure they have their full team in place, including strong leaders at the Department of Health and Human Services who will work with us to end this pandemic and rebuild a stronger, fairer country."
Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., the top Republican on the committee, said the "level of expertise that the American people deserve" may exceed Becerra's experience, which also includes serving as a California congressman assigned to the Subcommittee on Hhealth.
"Members of Congress do not become subject matter experts just because they are members of Congress, just because they sit on a committee that has health responsibilities," Burr said.
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HHS has a "central role" in meeting the ambitious goals President Joe Biden has set to battle COVID-19, including 100 million vaccinations in the administration's first 100 days, "safely and equitably," Becerra said, stressing that he plans to achieve them in a bipartisan fashion.
"As attorney general, I saw the importance of this on the frontlines. I worked with colleagues in other states - both Republicans and Democrats - to make COVID treatments more readily available. I am ready to work with you, our state and local partners and across government to get this right," he said.
The core components of HHS are the boots-on-the-ground part of the government's coronavirus response. The Food and Drug Administration oversees vaccines and treatments, while much of the underlying scientific and medical research comes from the National Institutes of Health. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention takes the lead in detecting and containing the spread of diseases.
Becerra emphasized several times during the hearing a commitment to get minority communities, who have been hit hardest by COVID-19, vaccinated quickly. He also pushed Biden's $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief plan, which is on track to pass the House but faces challenges in the Senate.
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As California's attorney general, Becerra filed more than 100 lawsuits against the Trump administration on a multitude of issues.
He led a coalition of Democratic states defending Obamacare from the Trump administration's efforts to overturn it, a legal case awaiting a Supreme Court decision this year.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., a Medicare for All advocate, pressed Becerra on what he would do to address the price of health care in this country.
"If we work hard to build on the Affordable Care Act and if we continue to make improvements, we will get to that point where we will finally be able to say that we cover all of our people," Becerra answered, adding that no one should have to worry about themselves or family members "not knowing if they will be able to afford the care" at hospitals.
"President Biden has committed, he has said that we are going to build on the Affordable Care Act, and that is what I hope to do," he said.
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Republican lawmakers also pressed Becerra over his support for some liberal policies, such as access to abortion.
Sen. Mike Braun, R-Ind., called Becerra's views on abortion "extreme" and asked if he'd "commit to not using taxpayer money to fund abortions and abortion providers."
Becerra responded he will "definitely follow the law when it comes to the use of federal resources, and so there I can make the commitment that we will follow the law."
Currently, the Hyde Amendment blocks federal funds for abortion services in almost all cases except in instances of rape, incest or to save the life of the woman.
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Becerra was one of the highest-ranking Latinos in Congress and represented parts of Los Angeles for 24 years before he was appointed California attorney general by then-Gov. Jerry Brown in 2017 to fill the vacancy left when Vice President Kamala Harris was elected to the U.S. Senate. In 2018, California voters elected Becerra to a full four-year term as attorney general.
Republican opposition to Becerra's nomination has grown louder. On Monday, Sens. John Kennedy of Louisiana and Tom Cotton of Arkansas, calling Becerra "unfit for any position of public trust," released a letter in which they asked Biden to withdraw the nomination.
However, with Democrats narrowly controlling the Senate, it is likely he will be confirmed.
Contributing: Kevin Johnson, James Ward, USA TODAY; The Associated Press
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Becerra confirmation: HHS nominee pressed over experience, COVID-19