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Senate Questions Health Secretary Nominee Xavier Becerra

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra has been selected to serve as secretary of Health and Human Services in the Biden administration, a source familiar with transition discussions confirms to NPR.
California Attorney General Xavier Becerra has been selected to serve as secretary of Health and Human Services in the Biden administration.

Xavier Becerra, President Biden's nominee for health secretary, faced two hours of questions before a Senate committee on Tuesday.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST: Xavier Becerra is President Biden's pick to lead the Department of Health and Human Services, and Becerra spent the morning before senators on the Health Committee. It was his first confirmation hearing and a window into whether Republican efforts to derail his confirmation have any hope of succeeding. NPR's Selena Simmons-Duffin was watching and joins us with more.

Hi, Selena.


SHAPIRO: Becerra is the attorney general of California. For listeners who are not familiar with him, tell us a little bit more about his backstory.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Right. Becerra's biography was a big part of the hearing. He is the son of immigrants from Mexico, a first-generation graduate from a four-year college. He went to Stanford Law and served in Congress for two decades. In his opening statement, he spoke about how HHS's is core to who he is and described a moment from his childhood when his mother was hemorrhaging and rushed to the hospital.


XAVIER BECERRA: The image is seared in my memory. We were lucky. My mom is now 87 years young. Better put, we were blessed. My dad, the laborer, had insurance through his union, Laborers Local 185. We didn't have much, but we didn't have to face the threat of unpaid medical bills or even bankruptcy.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Right now, of course, the job of the secretary of HHS will be to steer all of the federal health agencies - like CDC, NIH, FDA - through the end of the pandemic. But that story really speaks to the broader issue when it comes to health policy. Prices for coverage and care are really high in this country, and there's not a lot of bipartisan agreement about what to do about that.

SHAPIRO: Now, I mentioned that Republicans are more opposed to Becerra than to some of Biden's other nominees. Tell us why and how that played out.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Right. So the hearing was a little less friendly than some of the other hearings for Biden's cabinet nominees. And one concern raised by several Republican senators on the committee was that Becerra doesn't have the health policy experience to run the 80,000-person agency. Here is Senator Bill Cassidy of Louisiana.


BILL CASSIDY: You're a very highly trained attorney - great, impeccable credentials. I'm a physician. What would you as the attorney think if I, the physician, were nominated to be the United States attorney general as opposed to Merrick Garland? You would say, ah, the guy's not qualified.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: This wasn't a surprise attack line. Dozens of Republican lawmakers sent - made this argument in a letter to Biden sent yesterday - and in the press. Democratic senators had counterarguments ready. They said Becerra does have the experience - he worked in the weeds on implementing the Affordable Care Act - that he had the necessary leadership experience and that many health secretaries were not physicians or health care professionals before they took this job. Another point of contention in the hearing was on abortion. Becerra is a strong backer of reproductive rights. He also mentioned his wife is an OBGYN who worked with women with high-risk pregnancies. But I should say all of the exchanges, even on that contentious topic, were pretty brief and measured.

SHAPIRO: Health policy was such a big issue in the campaign from the public option to expanding Medicare and Medicaid. Did any of that come up in this hearing?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Yeah, honestly, not so much discussion on those issues. Becerra said he's ready to execute on Biden's priorities if confirmed. And that means expanding on the Affordable Care Act, working to reduce drug prices. But there weren't a lot of specific policy steps discussed in the hearing.

SHAPIRO: And next steps for his nomination?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Well, tomorrow, he's back in the Senate for a second hearing before the Finance Committee. Then, that committee will vote on his nomination. And if he gets through, he'll need to be confirmed by a majority in the full Senate to be able to take the helm at HHS.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Selena Simmons-Duffin.

Thank you.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Selena Simmons-Duffin reports on health policy for NPR.