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Becerra Faces Senate Grillings on Pandemic Response, Abortion (2)

Feb. 22, 2021, 8:40 PM; Updated: Feb. 22, 2021, 9:46 PM

Xavier Becerra, who will sit before two Senate panels this week in his quest to become the U.S. health secretary, will be pressed from members on both sides of the aisle on how he plans to improve the nation’s pandemic response.

Becerra plans to testify Tuesday that he is “ready to work with you, our state and local partners, and across government, to get this right” in the Biden administration’s Covid-19 response, according to a copy of his opening statement obtained by Bloomberg Law. “To meet this moment, we need strong federal leadership.”

Republicans will attempt to sink his nomination due to his stance on abortion and will try to paint him as beholden to the insurance industry.

The questioning of Becerra comes at a crucial point for the nascent Biden administration. The death toll for the Covid-19 pandemic has the passed 500,000 mark. Meanwhile, the Department of Health and Human Services and its key agencies, tasked with ramping up the struggling vaccine rollout, are working with almost all of their leaders still awaiting Senate confirmation.

Becerra, who served 12 terms in Congress and spent the past four years as California attorney general, will face tough questions and a potentially tight vote for confirmation. The Senate is equally split between Democrats and Republicans, and centrist Republicans like Sens. Susan Collins (R-Me.) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and anti-abortion Democrats such as Sens. Bob Casey (D-Penn.) and Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) could mean the difference between being confirmed and not.

Becerra will go before the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee Tuesday and the Senate Finance Committee Feb. 24.

Becerra plans to tell members of the Senate HELP Committee that he will work to “strengthen our Medicare and Medicaid lifelines, reduce the cost of health care and prescription drugs, and ensure we are accountable, spending resources wisely and effectively.”

HELP Chair Patty Murray (D-Wash.) will make the case that Becerra is well qualified to get the nation’s pandemic response on track and will focus on the importance of “scientific leadership,” according to a Democratic committee aide. Becerra will say he will work to “restore faith in our public health institutions. That starts with putting science and facts first and showing respect for our career workforce.”

“The opposition here, in my view, is just flailing around,” Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), chair of the Finance Committee, said in a call with reporters Monday. “They’ve done their best to try to find something that could stick in terms of their opposition, but there’s really just no there there, and I want to get him in there as quickly as possible to turn the tide of the pandemic.”

Wyden said no Democrats have expressed concerns to him about Becerra’s nomination.

The Senate Finance Committee will need to vote to send his nomination to the full Senate.

Answers on Covid Called Critical

Aides from both sides of the aisle say senators will press Becerra on how to improve the nation’s pandemic response and that those answers are likely to be the most pivotal.

Becerra is likely to be peppered with questions about how to speed vaccine distribution and supply, as well as how to aid hospitals and take on health-care equity issues. These are home state problems that senators take seriously, one aide said.

Changing the trajectory of the pandemic “won’t happen overnight. We can do better. We can not only control Covid but get us back to real normality, but it takes everybody, all hands on deck,” Becerra said in an January CNN interview.

Becerra has yet to speak extensively on what pandemic policies he would want to implement. However, during his time as California attorney general he defended Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom’s Covid-19 restrictions in court and pushed Amazon.com Inc. to provide information on its virus-related worker safety conditions.

Becerra also sent a letter with other state attorneys general in August 2020 encouraging the Trump administration to increase the availability and decrease the price of remdesivir, a therapeutic that treats patients with Covid-19.

He also spoke of how the pandemic served as a “great unmasking” of health disparities for minority communities at a Politico event in December. Becerra said his focus would be on building trust in those communities and encouraging more preventative care for chronic conditions. Chronic conditions, such as diabetes and obesity, are one of the factors that have contributed to Latinos and Black Americans being harder hit by the pandemic.

A Vocal Opposition

The partisan divide was highlighted Monday as more than 70 GOP members of Congress, including 11 senators, urged President Joe Biden to withdraw Becerra’s nomination.

“Mr. Becerra’s lack of healthcare experience, enthusiasm for replacing private health insurance with government-run Medicare-for-all, and embrace of radical policies on immigration, abortion, and religious liberty, render him unfit for any position of public trust, and especially for HHS Secretary,” the lawmakers wrote in a letter to the president.

The main opposition to Becerra’s nomination has come from anti-abortion lobbyists and conservative groups that don’t approve of his efforts to protect abortion access during his time in Congress and as California’s attorney general. Becerra led efforts to challenge Trump administration policies restricting abortion access.

Conservative groups have launched millions of dollars worth of advertisements opposing Becerra in recent weeks.

Republicans will also endeavor to depict Becerra as beholden to the insurance industry. While California’s attorney general, he sued Sutter Health for anticompetitive practices but didn’t get involved in a major lawsuit against dozens of Blue Cross plans claiming the insurers broke antitrust rules.

Becerra has received more than $30,000 in political contributions since 2017 from Blue Shield of California, an Oakland-based health plan that also employs 60,000 physicians, according to state records. He’s also garnered more than $28,000 from the California Nurses Association’s political action committee during that time.

(Updates comments from Becerra's prepared testimony in second, seventh, and eights paragraphs. )

To contact the reporters on this story: Shira Stein in Washington at sstein@bloomberglaw.com; Alex Ruoff in Washington at aruoff@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Fawn Johnson at fjohnson@bloombergindustry.com; Brent Bierman at bbierman@bloomberglaw.com

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