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Xavier Becerra to face Republican gantlet at confirmation hearings

San Francisco Chronicle logo San Francisco Chronicle 2/23/2021 By Tal Kopan

WASHINGTON — Senate Democrats believe they have the votes to confirm Xavier Becerra to run the federal Health and Human Services Department, but Republicans want to ensure it’s not painless.

The California attorney general will face back-to-back confirmation hearings, starting Tuesday before the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. On Wednesday he will go before the Finance Committee, which will vote on his nomination before sending it to the full Senate.

There’s no indication his confirmation is in trouble, although it is not yet a lock. Republicans are set to make his hearings a proxy fight over issues including abortion, health benefits for undocumented immigrants and coronavirus-related lockdowns.

Democrats will argue that Becerra is qualified to lead the federal government’s top health agency and will make the case that his leadership is essential during the coronavirus pandemic.

In the 50-50 Senate, Democrats can confirm Becerra without Republican help, with Vice President Kamala Harris serving as the tiebreaking vote. Thus far, at least a handful of Republicans have also voted for each of President Biden’s nominees.

But Becerra will need to win over every Democrat, including moderate West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, who has made his presence felt in opposing Biden’s budget nominee, Neera Tanden, imperiling her nomination. Manchin, who is more conservative than most Democrats on abortion rights, is undecided on Becerra’s nomination, a spokesperson told The Chronicle.

Becerra will face tough questions in his efforts to win over Manchin and more moderate Republicans and Democrats. It will be a return to Washington partisan politics for Becerra, who was in the House from 1993 to 2017 before returning to California to serve as attorney general. In that time, he worked alongside some of the senators who will now be voting on his nomination, though that won’t necessarily win over Republicans.

One of his most outspoken critics, Arkansas GOP Sen. Tom Cotton, referred to his time serving with Becerra in the House during an event held by Students for Life Action, an anti-abortion group that is organizing against Becerra’s confirmation.

“We knew what a far-left radical he was,” Cotton said.

Cotton voiced conservatives’ main complaints with Becerra, arguing that his lawsuits on behalf of California clashed with the religious right on issues including abortion and coronavirus restrictions on churches.

“The common thread of Xavier Becerra’s tenure as the attorney general of California is that he abuses law to target his enemies, which curiously enough always seem to be people of faith and pro-lifers and other social conservatives,” Cotton said. “If he has done it with the power he has as attorney general of California, of course he will do it with the vastly greater power he will have as secretary for Health and Human Services.”

On Monday, 11 Republican senators, including Cotton and 64 House lawmakers, wrote a letter to Biden asking that Becerra’s nomination be withdrawn over his lack of experience in health care and “radical policies.”

But Democrats were projecting confidence.

“The opposition here, in my view, is just flailing around,” said Finance Committee chair Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon. “I think they’ve done their best to try to find something that could stick in terms of their opposition, but really there’s nothing there.”

Wyden also defended Becerra’s health care bona fides, saying he was a senior member of congressional committees that were “particularly relevant” to the department’s work, and that as attorney general he has been fighting for Californians’ health care and to lower drug prices. He noted Becerra manages thousands of employees as the leader of the nation’s second-largest justice department, after the federal one.

Conservative groups have organized ad campaigns opposing Becerra’s confirmation. They have painted him as a pro-abortion rights, pro-Medicare for All crusader and supporter of restrictive coronavirus policies, by dint of his work defending California’s lockdowns as the state’s top lawyer.

Sen. Steve Daines of Montana, a Republican on the Finance Committee, joined Cotton on the Students for Life Action event to criticize the nomination. He also went after the Democrat’s credentials.

“Xavier Becerra has not had any experience in administering health care,” Daines said. “His career has been in attacking pro-life leaders, pro-life nuns, pro-life clinics ... with radical, radical efforts.”

As attorney general, Becerra filed more than 100 lawsuits against the Trump administration over policies including abortion rights, the environment and immigration, all in line with progressive Democratic priorities.

While Manchin has declined to preview how he will vote, Becerra doesn’t have Tanden’s history of incendiary tweets against Republicans that turned them off. Wyden said he hasn’t heard from any Democratic senator who has concerns about Becerra’s nomination.

Wyden also noted that Democrats would be focused on the pressing need amid the pandemic to confirm a secretary to the agency, with half a million Americans having died of COVID-19.

“I think they’re going to try to make a lot of noise about this, but I think we’re talking about the fact that people are dying every day,” Wyden said. “What we need is getting a full team here and not having the nomination being a target for partisan attacks.”

Tal Kopan is The San Francisco Chronicle’s Washington correspondent. Email: tal.kopan@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @talkopan

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