California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, President Biden’s pick for health and human services secretary, on Wednesday explained his aggressive pro-choice record and his legal battle with the Little Sisters of the Poor, saying he didn’t sue the nuns but sued the federal government.
Mr. Becerra weathered blistering questions about abortion policy from Senate Republicans at his confirmation hearing. He dodged repeated prodding from Sen. Steve Daines, Montana Republican, about whether he thought any restrictions on abortion were necessary.
“Could you name one abortion restriction that you might support?” Mr. Daines asked.
“Senator, let me try to respond this way, I have tried to make sure on this important issue for so many people, where oftentimes again we have different views but deeply held views that I have tried to make sure that I am abiding by the law,” Mr. Becerra said. “Because whether it’s a particular restriction or whether it’s the whole idea of abortion, whether we agree or not, we have to come to some conclusion.”
Mr. Daines then asked whether Mr. Becerra could name a single acceptable restriction on abortion.
“You’re talking to the spouse of an OB-GYN who for decades has practiced saving lives of women and babies,” Mr. Becerra answered. “And I can tell you that from the stories I’ve heard from Carolina, my wife, I know how hard many women struggle just to save the life of their baby.”
Mr. Becerra also defended his long-standing feud with nuns by insisting that he did not pick a fight with the religious order.
Sen. John Thune, South Dakota Republican, said Mr. Becerra spent an “inordinate amount of time and effort suing pro-life organizations like Little Sisters of the Poor” and trying to expand abortion in California.
“I think the majority of the American people would not want their secretary of health and human services focused or fixated on expanding abortion when we’ve got all these public health issues to deal with,” Mr. Thune said. “So how do you assure us that that’s not going to be something that continues over from your time as attorney general?”
Mr. Becerra said he would be respectful of opposing views on abortion.
“I have never sued the nuns, any nuns,” he said. “I have taken on the federal government, but I have never sued any affiliation of nuns and my actions have always been directed at the federal agencies because they have been trying to do things that are contrary to the law in California.”
California sued the Trump administration in 2017 over the federal government’s decision to exempt entities and individuals — including the nuns — with religious objections to a mandate requiring them to provide contraceptive coverage. The legal showdown went to the Supreme Court, where the Little Sisters also asked the Supreme Court to review California’s actions.
Last year, the Supreme Court ruled 7-2 for the Little Sisters in a different case involving Pennsylvania. The justices also ordered the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit to reconsider its ruling in the Little Sisters’ case.
Mr. Becerra’s nomination became a lightning rod for conservative opposition because of his record on abortion as attorney general and in Congress, where he represented a California district for 24 years. The conservative Heritage Action for America has mounted a $600,000 ad campaign against Mr. Becerra, and pro-life groups Susan B. Anthony List and Catholic Vote are among the organizations working to build opposition to his confirmation.