Most of President Biden’s nominees are poised to skate through the U.S. Senate with an easy confirmation, apart from Office and Management Director nominee, but Republicans are targeting a handful of his other picks in hopes of discrediting them as they prepare for new government positions.
California Attorney General Xavier Becerra will be facing two confirmation hearings this week for his nomination to lead the Department of Health and Human Services. A former congressman with no public health experience, Republicans are not only seizing on this gap in his resume, but also attacking his work as California’s top prosecutor.
For the past week, ads bankrolled by Heritage Action for America, a political arm of the Heritage Foundation think tank, have been airing on cable news networks that raise questions about Becerra’s qualifications and some of the cases he’s filed as California’s top prosecutor, including a case against the Catholic nuns Little Sisters of the Poor over its religious opposition to the contraceptive mandate in the Affordable Care Act.
“He’s a radical partisan, an activist, not a doctor,” the announcer says in the ad, airing on Fox News Channel, among other networks. The advertisement is part of a broader roughly $2 million campaign against Becerra and Vanita Gupta, nominated to serve as associate attorney general, the number-three post at the Justice Department. The Judicial Crisis Network is airing ads against Gupta that highlight her past comments about criminal justice reform and the “defund the police” movement.
Being a doctor is not a prerequisite for job for which Becerra has been nominated, and there have been many HHS secretaries who were not physicians. His predecessor, Alex Azar, also lacked a medical degree but had served as the top lawyer for HHS and as deputy secretary during the Bush administration and later as president of the U.S. division of Eli Lilly and Company, a major pharmaceutical, before leading the department.
Democrats have defended Becerra’s nomination, noting that while he’s not a public health professional, he spent much of his two dozen years in Congress pushing for health-care reform and for passage of the Affordable Care Act in the early years of the Obama administration. More recently in California, Democrats say he has used his perch to defend the law’s constitutionality and attempts by the Trump administration to chip away at aspects of the law.
A smaller, more targeted ad campaign not only casts doubt on Becerra but can be interpreted as an early salvo in the 2024 Republican presidential campaign. Arkansas GOP Senator Tom Cotton, a potential 2024 candidate, is dipping into his own campaign coffers to fund digital ads in New Hampshire and Georgia to build public support against Becerra’s nomination. He’s hoping to put pressure on Democratic Senators Maggie Hassan, of New Hampshire and Raphael Warnock, of Georgia, who face reelection in 2022 and who Republicans believe are vulnerable to a strong GOP challenge.
The 30-second Cotton spot against Becerra notes that he is to be Mr. Biden’s “secretary of health care” but supported the “Medicare for All” health-care proposal backed by liberal senators like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, and as attorney general, he “defended California’s disastrous lockdowns that have destroyed small businesses and hurt school children.”
The criticism has sparked more vocal support for Becerra ahead of his hearing on Tuesday before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee and a hearing scheduled Tuesday before the Senate Finance Committee. Because of the broad scope of HHS over health policy and health-care programs, Becerra’s nomination is officially considered by both panels.
Some Becerra backers note he would be the first Latino to lead the department, while others, including Planned Parenthood Action Fund, the political arm of Planned Parenthood, note he’s been a longtime supporter of abortion rights.
“Becerra’s experience, leadership, and dedication to racial equity make him the right person to navigate us through these crises,” Alexis McGillis Johnson said in a statement on Tuesday. “He also understands that reproductive health care — including abortion — is health care, and must be treated as such by our elected leaders and top health officials.”
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