California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, hoping to lock down Democratic support amid Republican headwinds, said Tuesday he would help President Biden build on Obamacare and confront the “enormous challenges” of the COVID-19 pandemic if he is confirmed as health secretary.
Mr. Becerra, a lawyer and former congressman, relied heavily on his personal story as the son of Mexican immigrants to Sacramento in pleading his case for confirmation before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. He said his parents taught him to “earn the American dream” but would be astonished by the inequities and stumbling blocks put in front of U.S. workers searching for well-being during the pandemic.
“I understand the enormous challenges before us and our solemn responsibility to faithfully steward this agency that touches almost every aspect of our lives,” Mr. Becerra testified. “I am humbled by the task and I’m ready for it.”
The Democrat said the opioids crisis and rural residents would remain a priority in the COVID-19 fight, as conservatives worked to highlight “radical” positions on abortion, pandemic restrictions and the government’s role in health insurance, saying they make him untenable as Health and Human Services secretary.
Sen. Mike Braun, Indiana Republican, asked Mr. Becerra to commit to never using taxpayers dollars to fund abortions or abortion providers.
Mr. Biden has expressed support for repealing the Hyde Amendment, which forbids spending taxpayer dollars on abortions except in cases of rape, incest or danger to the mother.
“We will definitely follow the law when it comes to the use of federal resources,” Mr. Becerra said.
“Not really the answer I was looking for,” Mr. Braun said, before moving on to other questions.
The Department of Health and Human Services is a sprawling part of the government that oversees federal insurance programs and public health. HHS has operated without a Senate-confirmed leader for the first month of the Biden administration, even as the country confronts the deadly COVID-19 pandemic.
“Given the urgency of this crisis, I’m hopeful that after this hearing and the finance hearing tomorrow, the Senate will move quickly to confirm Attorney General Becerra,” said Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray, Washington Democrat.
Conservatives and pro-life groups say Mr. Becerra’s record is nothing to admire, arguing he has put abortion clinics ahead of churches as California navigates societal closures during the COVID-19 crisis. They also cried foul over his defense of Obamacare’s contraception mandate as nuns and others said the rules violated their beliefs.
Mr. Becerra is a staunch defender of Obamacare.
As California’s attorney general, he took on a group of Republican state officials who argued that Congress’ move to zero out the law’s penalty for shirking health insurance made the entire program invalid.
The Supreme Court seemed skeptical of the GOP’s argument, meaning Mr. Becerra and allies may be heading for victory later this year.
If confirmed, Mr. Becerra would be the first Hispanic to lead HHS.
Democrats can muscle him across the finish line with unified support from their side of the chamber, split 50-50 between the parties, since Vice President Kamala Harris can break a tie.
The administration is hoping to avoid the fate of Neera Tanden, whose nomination to be Mr. Biden’s budget director is in jeopardy after Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia said he would reject her.
Biden officials are struggling to find Republican support to make up for his vote.
The top Republican on the health committee, Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, worried Mr. Becerra would be too heavy-handed in dealing with drugmakers, potentially upending progress in fighting diseases and future pandemics.
Sen. Susan Collins, a centrist Republican and key swing vote, urged Mr. Becerra to listen to a broad set of stakeholders in helping students return to school safely. She also got the nominee to commit to funding and resources for long-term care facilities hit hard by COVID-19.
Mr. Becerra also faced pressure from the left.
Sen. Bernard Sanders, Vermont independent and sponsor of government-run health care, wanted to know what Mr. Becerra would do to guarantee coverage for all Americans and to reduce drug costs.
The nominee said Mr. Biden would build on the 2010 health law to plug holes in coverage.
“I believe that we are moving in that direction and President Biden is committed,” Mr. Becerra said. “He has said, without mistake, that we are going to build on the Affordable Care Act.”