Abortion emerges as key division in Becerra’s Finance hearing

Prescription drug costs, health care law also discussed

Xavier Becerra, nominee to be secretary of Health and Human Services, arrives for his Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee confirmation hearing on Feb. 23, 2021.  (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Xavier Becerra, nominee to be secretary of Health and Human Services, arrives for his Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee confirmation hearing on Feb. 23, 2021. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted February 24, 2021 at 6:24pm

President Joe Biden’s nominee to lead the Department of Health and Human Services, Xavier Becerra, told the Senate Finance Committee in some of the most tense exchanges in two days of confirmation hearings that he would follow the law on abortion.

Finance Chairman Ron Wyden, D-Ore., did not say when the committee, the only panel that will vote on the nomination, would do so.

Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., who is undecided on how he will vote, said he expects Becerra to be confirmed.

The disagreements on abortion restrictions and exemptions for medical providers with moral objections to abortion were among the sharpest policy differences on display in this week’s hearings in Finance and in the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee the previous day. Lawmakers and conservative groups have said Becerra is unfit to lead HHS in part because of his previous votes as a House member and lawsuits he brought as California attorney general against the Trump administration on reproductive health policies. 

“I have tried to make sure on this important issue for so many people — where oftentimes, again, we have different views but deeply held views — that I have tried to make sure that I have abided by the law,” Becerra told Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont. “Whether it’s a particular restriction or whether it’s the whole idea of abortion, whether we agree or not, we have to come to some conclusion, and that’s where the law gives us a place to go.”

Becerra added that he would likely recuse himself from some decisions, which he didn’t name, that would overlap with litigation he brought in his current role as California attorney general.

Wyden said the differences of opinion on abortion “should not be used as a rationale to prevent confirmation of a person like yourself who is qualified.”

During Wednesday’s hearing, Democrats defended Becerra’s qualifications to lead the sprawling agency, although few committee Republicans raised those concerns that other Republican lawmakers and outside groups have emphasized in a bid to sink the nomination.

Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Calif., who introduced Becerra to the panel, said Becerra was being held to a different standard than other nominees the Senate confirmed over the past four years. If confirmed, Becerra would be the first Latino to lead the agency. Becerra did not raise that issue in the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions hearing Tuesday.

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“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. But, members of the committee, Xavier Becerra is a proven leader who is uniquely qualified to take on the challenges of this moment.”

Questions on health policy

Sen. Michael D. Crapo, R-Idaho, the panel’s ranking member, said he was concerned about Becerra’s past support of Medicare for All, given that a government-run, single-payer system like that would eliminate employer-sponsored health insurance and the Medicare Advantage private plan program.

Becerra emphasized that he would not push his own agenda but would focus on expanding the 2010 health care law, which Biden campaigned on. 

“I am here at the pleasure of the president of the United States. He’s made it very clear where he is,” Becerra said. “That will be my mission to achieve the goals that President Biden put forward to build on the Affordable Care Act.”

Sen. Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, touted drug pricing legislation previously proposed by himself and Wyden, arguing that their proposal would be more likely to get a Senate vote with Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer controlling the floor this year rather than Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. Grassley said their plan was more likely to get 60 Senate votes than legislation allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices, as many House Democrats want.

Becerra said it would be easier to choose a legislative approach if he were still a member of Congress but lowering drug prices would be a priority for the administration. 

“There’s no doubt that President Biden wants to see us lower the price of prescription medicine,” he said. “We’ll be working with you in a bipartisan fashion.”

Becerra declined to say whether the administration would consider using so-called march-in rights to bypass drug manufacturers’ patents as a way to lower drug prices.  Sen. Patrick J. Toomey, R-Pa., asked Becerra about his previous advocacy that the federal government do so.

Senators also pressed Becerra on the COVID-19 pandemic response, including vaccine distribution, masks and mental health. For instance, he promised to work with Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., on concerns about fraudulent N95 masks and with Sen. Todd Young, R-Ind., about whether states could opt out of certain vaccine distribution programs if they find some programs counterproductive to the greater effort.

Becerra also told the committee he would address racial and ethnic disparities in the health care system, including maternal health. He said he would empower the Office of Minority Health and other offices to address issues exacerbated by the pandemic.

Becerra told Wyden that collecting more data was an important step to address those disparities. He also said it was encouraging that addressing the social determinants of health was a bipartisan issue.

“We also have to reach out to the communities that know the people that we’re missing,” he said. “We have to train a better workforce, a bigger workforce, and we have to make sure they’re competent in the cultural, linguistic differences that oftentimes we see.”