GOP senators question Becerra qualifications to lead HHS, past vote against partial-birth abortion ban

Burr says he is 'not sure' he has 'the experience or skills to do the job'

Republican senators on Tuesday questioned Biden Health and Human Services nominee Xavier Becerra on his qualifications to lead the department, as well as his past vote against a partial abortion ban.

Becerra, who currently sits as California's attorney general and previously served as a congressman representing California's 30th District, took questions Tuesday during the first of two confirmation hearings.

Republican North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr, ranking member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, was first to raise concerns about the attorney general's qualifications to lead HHS, saying his "actions as attorney general for California during your tenure in Congress reveal a disregard for the value of this ingenuity."

Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., speaks during a confirmation hearing for Secretary of Health and Human Services nominee Xavier Becerra. (Leigh Vogel/Pool via AP)

Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., speaks during a confirmation hearing for Secretary of Health and Human Services nominee Xavier Becerra. (Leigh Vogel/Pool via AP)

Burr criticized Becerra's regulatory actions as California AG, including his advocacy for march-in rights, in his opening statement.

"These tasks will require sound policy experience," Burr said of the duties that Becerra will face as HHS secretary, comparing Becerra's experience with that of former Trump HHS Secretaries Alex Azar and Tom Price, noting that Azar "had an extensive career in the biopharmaceutical sector" and Price was a physician."

He added that former Obama HHS Secretary Mary Burwell "tackled health issues" and earlier Obama HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius "served as the Kansas commissioner of insurance."

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"This level of expertise that the American people deserve and that continued to respond to pandemics," he said. "Members of Congress do not become subject matter experts just because they are members of Congress, just because they sit on a committee that has health responsibilities."

Burr said he is "not sold yet" on Becerra and is "not sure" he has "the experience or skills to do the job."

Republican Sen. Bill Cassidy echoed Burr's concerns, saying Becerra is a "very highly trained attorney" with "some impeccable credentials" but questioned whether they were fitting for the role of HHS secretary.

Secretary of Health and Human Services nominee Xavier Becerra speaks during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. (Leigh Vogel/Pool via AP)

Secretary of Health and Human Services nominee Xavier Becerra speaks during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. (Leigh Vogel/Pool via AP)

"What would you think if I were nominated to be the United States Attorney General as opposed to Merrick Garland? You would say these guys not qualified," he said. "You can imagine the concern that I have regarding your nomination. With that said, I have an open mind and just want to go through it."

Questions of whether Becerra is fit for the role are not new.

Some political pundits, including CNN commentator Ana Navarro and DNC Chair Jaime Harrison, on Twitter related concerns of Becerra's experience to former President Trump's Department of Housing and Urban Development secretary, Ben Carson -- a retired neurosurgeon -- saying the former HUD secretary similarly lacked related professional experience before joining Trump's Cabinet.

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The California AG has had not front-line health care experience but has previously advocated for Medicare for All and filed more than 100 lawsuits against the Trump administration regarding issues ranging from abortion to the administration's efforts to repeal and replace the Obama-era Affordable Care Act.

Becerra and New York Attorney General Letitia James in January led a coalition of six state attorneys general and Washington, D.C., in suing the Trump administration over an anti-abortion policy regarding Section 1303 of the ACA. Becerra said in a statement announcing at the time that he would "defend California’s ability to enact and enforce laws that promote the health of its residents."

Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, speaks during a confirmation hearing for Secretary of Health and Human Services nominee Xavier Becerra before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. (Leigh Vogel/Pool via AP)

Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, speaks during a confirmation hearing for Secretary of Health and Human Services nominee Xavier Becerra before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. (Leigh Vogel/Pool via AP)

Republican Utah Sen. Mitt Romney questioned Becerra on his stance toward abortion Tuesday, pressing the AG on why he voted against a 2003 bill banning partial-birth abortion, medically known as "intact dilation and extraction," or a late-term abortion that results in the partial delivery of a baby from the uterus before it is aborted. 

"Most people agree that partial-birth abortion is awful," Romney said. "You voted against a ban on partial-birth abortion. Why?"

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Becerra began his response by saying he understands and respects that "people have different, deeply held beliefs on this issue."

"I have worked...for decades trying to protect the health of men and women, young and old," he said. "And as attorney general, my job has been to follow the law and make sure others are following the law. ... When I come to these issues, I understand that we may not always agree on where to go, but I think we can find some common ground on these issues."

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He continued: "I think we can find some common ground on these issues because everyone wants to make sure that if you have an opportunity, you're going to live a healthy life, and ... I hope to work with you and others to reach that common ground on so many different issues.

Romney responded by saying he thinks he and Becerra could "reach common ground on many issues, but on partial-birth abortion, it sounds like we're not going to reach common ground there."