Becerra questioned about abortion, immigration at HHS budget hearing

Increases for public health, medical research praised by both parties

Xavier Becerra arrives for a Senate hearing before his confirmation as secretary of Health and Human Services. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Xavier Becerra arrives for a Senate hearing before his confirmation as secretary of Health and Human Services. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted April 15, 2021 at 4:23pm

Immigration policy and abortion restrictions were among the issues discussed with the newly confirmed Health and Human Services secretary during a House appropriations hearing Thursday on the administration’s fiscal 2022 health care budget. 

The Department of Health and Human Services is seeking a $131.7 billion overall fiscal 2022 request for HHS, a 23.5 percent increase over the 2021 enacted level. The White House on Friday revealed its budget blueprint, which would seek the largest budget discretionary funding increase for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in nearly two decades.

The House Appropriations Labor-HHS-Education Subcommittee met Thursday to kick off the process of funding the department. The hearing offered HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra his first chance to testify in his new capacity after being narrowly confirmed last month.

Committee and subcommittee Chairwoman Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., praised the budget and noted some common ground between parties.

Both sides commended requests to improve public health, increase medical research funding and decrease negative maternal health outcomes. The subcommittee held separate hearings on mental and maternal health in March, and those topics continue to be mostly bipartisan funding priorities despite differences on other issues.

“Many of the proposed program increases, while well-intentioned, are not warranted on the scale requested,” said subcommittee ranking member Tom Cole, R-Okla. “I do agree with the president that we need to invest more on the areas of public health and biomedical research.”

Concerns over unaccompanied children

But tensions were on display over how to handle a rise in unaccompanied immigrant minors on the southern border, and abortion policy riders.

Increasing numbers of unaccompanied migrant children have come to the United States in recent months, which has led the administration to scramble to handle the situation including by setting up emergency intake sites.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection data from March shows almost 19,000 migrant children crossed the U.S.-Mexico border alone. Democrats have blamed Trump administration policies and what are known as “push factors” in Central America. Republicans have countered that the increase stems from Biden administration policies.

HHS is responsible for the transportation and care of these children until they are placed with a family member, guardian or sponsor.

Rep. Ben Cline, R-Va., said the administration was not doing enough to ensure the border was secure.

“Because of the rhetoric on immigration policies, we have seen spikes in illegal border crossings, record numbers coming as a direct result of policies of this administration,” he said. “I’d like to hear from you what this administration is planning to do to ensure that people coming across this border, whether illegally or legally, do not have the coronavirus.”

Becerra said HHS was committed to transparency about the situation and that all of these children are tested for COVID-19.

“We are not trying to hide anything. We want folks to know what we are doing, how we are doing it,” said Becerra. “We are not interested in hiding anything about the care for these kids.”

The secretary also told Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., that the situation continues to be a work in process.

“We have to make sure we don’t cross outside of our own lane but that’s what makes it difficult,” said Becerra. “We have to remember our mission is separate and apart from Homeland Security’s mission.”

DeLauro said she hoped Becerra would make a commitment to improving the situation fast. She said she hopes the administration moves quickly to develop its long-term strategy to ensure the safety of children in HHS custody in state-licensed shelters, which Beccera mentioned in his testimony.

“We want to move as quickly as we can to help these children,” she said.

Abortion rider reversal

Similarly, Democrats have set out to remove some federal limits on abortion funding like the Hyde amendment this year. Republicans argue that the Hyde amendment has long been a bipartisan policy.

Cole, in his closing remarks, cited a similar situation over another abortion policy battle a years ago with an unnamed Democratic senator.

“My friend on the other side of the aisle of the other chamber said, ‘You can have a deal or you can have a fight, but you can’t have both.' I thought that was very wise,” said Cole. "I would very much like to get to the point where I could do that again. The commitment I will make to you is that I will work to that end.”

Cole and GOP Reps. Andy Harris of Maryland and John Moolenaar of Michigan all expressed concerns about moving forward with changes to abortion policy, including the Weldon amendment. The Weldon amendment is an annual rider than prevents discrimination against entities that receive federal funds if they do not cover abortions.

Some lawmakers and advocates have argued that a proposed rule HHS released Wednesday that would expand eligibility for federal funding for family planning would force faith-based providers to issue abortion referrals.

Harris asked Becerra if there would be a transparent process for various viewpoints to be heard in the rulemaking process.

“I can guarantee you at HHS before we take any action we will take the comments necessary, hear from all the stakeholders to make sure what we are doing is based on the facts, the science, and the law,” said Becerra, citing his time as the attorney general of California.