WASHINGTON – The Senate narrowly confirmed Xavier Becerra to be Health and Human Services secretary on a 50-49 vote Thursday. Becerra, California’s Attorney General, will be the first Latino to hold the Cabinet position.
As HHS secretary, he will play a crucial role in combating the COVID-19 pandemic. The U.S. neared 540,000 COVID-19 deaths on Thursday, according to data from John Hopkins University.
Sen. Susan Collins of Maine was the sole Republican to cross party lines and vote in favor of Becerra. Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, did not vote.
In February, Becerra faced two days of contentious Senate hearings, where he stressed he wishes to work in a bipartisan fashion to achieving the ambitious goals President Joe Biden has set to battle COVID-19, including 100 million vaccinations in the administration’s first 100 days, “safely and equitably.” The country is on track to surpass that goal, possibly crossing the mark later Thursday.
Some Republican senators have argued Becerra, a former attorney with no medical experience, is unqualified to helm HHS, a $1.4 trillion agency with a broad portfolio, during the pandemic.
Speaking from the Senate floor Thursday, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., criticized Republicans who held-up Becerra’s nomination.
Schumer said their arguments “verge on the ridiculous” and that they “complained loudly that he had no direct experience as a medical professional, even though Republicans voted in lockstep to install Alex Azar, a pharmaceutical executive who raised drug prices and tried to undermine our nation’s health law as the previous HHS Secretary.”
Sen. John Barrasso, R-WY., called Becerra “unqualified” and “radically liberal” while opposing his nomination from the Senate floor Thursday.
Barrasso, who is a physician, said he is “deeply concerned” that Becerra is “not a doctor, not a scientist, not a public health official.”
“He’s a trial lawyer and a career politician. A global pandemic is no time for on-the-job health care training,” he said.
Schumer countered that Becerra “by contrast (to Azar), has decades of standing up for working and middle-class Americans in Congress, fighting to protect and expand Medicare, Medicaid, and working to safeguard our health care system from attacks by the Trump administration.”
The core components of HHS are the boots-on-the-ground part of the government’s coronavirus response. The Food and Drug Administration oversees vaccines and treatments, while much of the underlying scientific and medical research comes from the National Institutes of Health. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention takes the lead in detecting and containing the spread of diseases.
Earlier this month, the Senate Finance Committee was split down party lines to move Becerra’s nomination to the full senate, which forced Schumer to hold a floor vote to advance the nomination out of committee.