Biden HHS Nominee Xavier Becerra Faces Questions On Abortion, WHO, COVID-19 In First Confirmation Hearing

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Dylan Housman Deputy News Editor
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President Joe Biden’s nominee to be the next Secretary of Health and Human Services, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, faced questions Tuesday about topics ranging from COVID-19 to abortion to systemic racism during his first confirmation hearing in the Senate.

Becerra’s nomination has been one of the most contentious made by Biden so far, with a number of conservatives speaking out against the California lawyer. Several of Republicans, including the party’s top member on the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) committee, North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr, have expressed concerns about Becerra’s lack of experience and expertise in healthcare.

Much of the hearing covered the Biden administration’s response to COVID-19. When asked about school openings, Becerra described the issue of school reopenings as local when Republican Maine Sen. Susan Collins questioned the strictness of CDC school reopening guidelines. “The best approach… is to let science guide us and to let the experts determine when it is safe, remembering that schools and education are a local issue,” Becerra said.

“We should not be the ones making the final decision on how and when a school will reopen,” Becerra added. The Biden administration has faced increasing pressure to facilitate the opening of more public schools despite pushback from teachers unions.

On the question of vaccines, Becerra gave some credit to the administration of former President Donald Trump for its work on Operation Warp Speed. Republican Indiana Sen. Mike Braun asked Becerra if it would “be a stretch” to give credit to the Trump administration for the speedy development of COVID-19 vaccines. “Certainly they worked on it very hard,” Becerra said, not mentioning Trump or any administration officials by name.

Multiple times, Becerra referenced the Biden administration’s initial goal of administering 100 million vaccine doses in 100 days, calling it “ambitious.” Republican Kansas Sen. Roger Marshall said “100 million in 100 days is not acceptable,” stressing that he believed the U.S. could reach herd immunity by April or May. The Biden administration is currently on pace to distribute far more than 100 million doses in its first 100 days, but Becerra would not commit to any aspirations above that goal.

Marshall also raised a question about the World Health Organization (WHO), which has received sharp criticism for helping spread Chinese disinformation about the COVID-19 pandemic. Trump began the process of withdrawing the United States from the WHO, but Becerra affirmed that Biden is committed to getting back into the organization. He also said the administration will need to make sure that “everyone is held accountable,” although it was unclear if he was specifically referring to the WHO, China, or the global community at-large. (RELATED: Biden Admin Pushes Back On World Health Organization’s China Investigation — But What Happens Next?)

Abortion was another area of concern for multiple Republicans on the HELP committee. Becerra has an extensive record of pushing pro-abortion policies as California Attorney General, and dozens of pro-life organizations and advocates have come out against his nomination.

Republican Utah Sen. Mitt Romney asked Becerra why he voted against a partial-birth abortion ban during his time in Congress. Becerra did not directly answer the question, saying “I think we can find some common ground.”

Republican Indiana Sen. Mike Braun asked Becerra about taxpayer funding of abortion. Again, Becerra did not address the issue head-on. “I can say to you that we will follow the law when it comes to the use of federal resources,” Becerra said. (RELATED: Biden’s HHS Pick Once Said Religious Institutions Don’t Merit The Same Freedoms As Individuals)

Other issues that were discussed included prescription drug prices, climate change, and systemic racism. HELP committee chair, Democratic Washington Sen. Patty Murray, thanked Becerra for talking about how we can “weed out systemic racism in our healthcare system.”

Becerra said the administration must “build on what we’ve had with the Affordable Care Act.” In response to a question from Independent Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders on prescription drug prices, Becerra said there is “bipartisan support for tackling the high cost of prescription medication. I can assure you that that will be one of my priorities.”

Democratic Colorado Senator John Hickenlooper claimed that “climate change does really pose a major threat to public health.” Becerra agreed, saying “I look forward to working with you in your cause to make sure we can truly address the health effects of climate change.”

Becerra will appear tomorrow before the Senate Finance Committee for another confirmation hearing.