The Senate Finance Committee on Wednesday split evenly along party lines on whether to advance Xavier Becerra for Health and Human Services secretary, leaving it to Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to bring the nomination up for a full Senate vote.
The 14-14 tally reflected the sharp partisan divisions around Becerra, now California’s attorney general, who’s drawn fire from conservatives eager to make his confirmation a political liability for Democrats facing reelection next year.
He is the first of President Joe Biden’s Cabinet nominees not to be favorably reported out of committee, which will force Democrats to bring up a motion to discharge his nomination and hold an additional four hours of debate before a confirmation vote.
The Senate’s ongoing work on Biden’s $1.9 trillion Covid relief bill and a pile-up of other nominees awaiting confirmation complicates the timeline for Becerra — particularly if Vice President Kamala Harris needs to be on hand to break a tie.
A senior Senate GOP aide said the deadlocked committee vote amounted to a victory, because Finance Republicans Bill Cassidy and Chuck Grassley usually are inclined to give deference to presidential nominees.
Still, barring any unexpected Democratic defections, Becerra is likely to be confirmed as early as next week. A Democratic leadership aide told POLITICO that they “remain optimistic” and want to move on Becerra’s confirmation as soon as possible due to the urgency of staffing up the health agency at the center of the government’s pandemic response.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Wednesday that the administration “remains confidently behind” Becerra and understood that not every Cabinet official would receive sweeping support.
The Finance Committee’s ranking Republican, Mike Crapo of Idaho, vowed Wednesday to work with Becerra on less contentious issues, such as telehealth and securing Medicare’s finances, if he’s confirmed. But he and other Republicans criticized Becerra’s lack of health policy expertise in arguing he was the wrong pick to lead the sprawling federal health department during a pandemic.
“Being HHS Secretary should not be a learn-on-the-job position,” said Cassidy (R-La.).
Finance Chair Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) accused the Republicans of “twisting reality” when it comes to Becerra’s record and warned that further delays on the nomination puts the country’s Covid-19 response at risk.
“This country is in the middle of a public health nightmare, and the American people need to have a Senate-confirmed leader running HHS as soon as possible,” he said.
Ahead of the floor debate and vote on Becerra, Republican lawmakers and conservative outside groups will continue to ramp up pressure campaigns surrounding the nomination.
The political arm of the Heritage Foundation launched a $500,000 ad buy in West Virginia and Arizona on Wednesday, with spots focusing on Becerra’s record on abortion rights, guns and immigration. Other anti-Becerra ad campaigns from Sen. Tom Cotton’s PAC and anti-abortion groups Susan B. Anthony List and Students for Life are also underway.
Even if Becerra is ultimately confirmed, Republicans hope to make his nomination a key message in their bid to retake the Senate in 2022. Yet one of the swing-state members already targeted by the campaign, Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.), voted for Becerra on Wednesday, which the GOP aide acknowledged “hurts our case” that the HHS secretary can continue to be a meaningful flashpoint.
However, the longer it takes to schedule and vote on his confirmation, the longer the negative ads will run in key states.
“We’ll extract our pound of flesh for it,” the aide said.