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Republicans grill ‘radical’ Xavier Becerra on abortion, religious liberty

San Francisco Chronicle logo San Francisco Chronicle 2/25/2021 By Dustin Gardiner
Xavier Becerra wearing a suit and tie: California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, nominee for secretary of health and human services, answers questions during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Finance Committee on Wednesday. © Greg Nash / Pool / Getty Images

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, nominee for secretary of health and human services, answers questions during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Finance Committee on Wednesday.

Xavier Becerra faced a barrage of skeptical questions from Republican senators Wednesday in his confirmation hearing to be President Biden’s health and human services secretary, as the GOP tried to cast him as a radical leftist on abortion and religious liberty.

Republicans on the Finance Committee, which will vote on whether the full Senate should confirm Becerra, repeatedly prodded California’s attorney general to explain his views on reproductive issues during his second day of hearings.

But Becerra largely sidestepped their questions. He said his job as attorney general is simply to defend the state’s laws, and he was aided by Democrats who said he had faced unfair partisan criticism.

As attorney general, Becerra filed more than 100 lawsuits against the Trump administration over policies contrary to Democratic goals, including on reproductive care. Republican senators pointed to that track record as they grilled Becerra.

“I just want to be up front and tell you, I’ve got serious concerns with the radical views that you’ve taken in the past on the issue of abortion,” said Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont.

GOP senators questioned if Becerra’s litigation related to abortion and contraception would create a conflict of interest in his prospective role running the Health and Human Services Department. Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., asked Becerra if he would be “focused or fixated on expanding abortion.”

“How do you assure us that that’s not going to be something that continues over from your time as attorney general?” Thune said.

Becerra repeatedly deflected such questions. He said he would follow federal law and court rulings on abortion, and would recuse himself from cases that he was involved with at the state level.

When he sued, he said, it was because “my job as attorney general is to defend the laws of our state.” In Biden’s Cabinet, he said, “I will defend the law and support the law that’s in place.”

Republicans also pointed to a Supreme Court ruling last year that upheld Trump administration regulations allowing employers to deny birth control to women for religious or moral reasons. Becerra sued to overturn the exception, which had been sought by the Little Sisters of the Poor, a group of Catholic nuns.

Becerra protested that his fight was with the federal government and that he “never sued any nuns.”

Several Democrats came to his defense, including California Sen. Alex Padilla, who introduced Becerra to the committee. Addressing Republican criticism of Becerra’s qualifications, Padilla said the attorney general was “being held to a much different standard” than other recent Cabinet nominees because he is a person of color.

“Both Attorney General Becerra and I, throughout our careers, have too often been the only Latino in the room,” Padilla said. “Sadly, Xavier and I are not unfamiliar with being held to different standards.”

Chronicle Washington correspondent Tal Kopan contributed to this report.

Dustin Gardiner is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: dustin.gardiner@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @dustingardiner

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