California Attorney General Xavier Becerra may be second only to progressive activist Neera Tanden as the president’s most hotly contested Cabinet selection, but unlike Ms. Tanden, Mr. Becerra appears headed for confirmation.
Two swing voters — Sens. Susan Collins, Connecticut Republican, and Joe Manchin, West Virginia Democrat — said Thursday they would vote in favor of Mr. Becerra‘s nomination to head the Health and Human Services Department, all but sealing the deal for the contentious pick.
“While Attorney General Xavier Becerra and I have very different records on issues like abortion and the Second Amendment, he has affirmed to me his dedication to working with members on both sides of the aisle to address the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and the numerous needs of our nation in a bipartisan way,” Mr. Manchin said in a statement.
The Senate is poised to take final action next week on Mr. Becerra, whose nomination was discharged Thursday on a 51-48 vote, an extra step required after the Senate Finance Committee split 14-14 last week on the nominee along party lines.
Prior to the floor vote, Republicans waged a fierce battle against Mr. Becerra over his lack of health care qualifications and staunch left-wing record on abortion, immigration and religious liberty, starting with his lawsuit seeking to force the Little Sisters of the Poor to offer contraceptive coverage.
Sen. Marsha Blackburn, Tennessee Republican, called him “radically unqualified,” adding that defeating his nomination was a top-five issue for her constituents based on her office correspondence.
“He is radically anti-life, anti-religion, anti-border security, anti-free speech,” Ms. Blackburn said. “He is unqualified to lead.”
Running ads against Mr. Becerra‘s nomination are Heritage Action for America and Sen. Tom Cotton, Arkansas Republican, whose digital spots appear in Georgia and New Hampshire, states where Democrats are seeking to hold onto Senate seats in 2022.
Sen. John Thune, South Dakota Republican, said that he has voted for many of President Biden’s “qualified, mainstream candidates,” but that “Mr. Becerra is not a mainstream candidate.”
“He is an extremist who has used the offices he has held to advance an aggressively pro-abortion agenda and to target religious liberty and freedom of conscience,” Mr. Thune said. “Mr. Becerra does not represent the views of a majority of Americans. He represents the views of the radical pro-abortion wing of the Democrat Party.”
He said it was unclear whether Mr. Becerra favored any restrictions on abortion, citing the former congressman’s 2003 vote against the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act, and hammered his lack of health care experience.
“Mr. Becerra is not a doctor, he’s not worked in the health care field, he’s not a virologist or a vaccine expert. He does not have a background in public health,” Mr. Thune said. “It’s not unreasonable to conclude that his appeal to the abortion left, one of the most powerful interest groups in the Democrat Party, was a prime reason for his nomination.”
Democrats countered that Mr. Becerra has championed the Affordable Care Act, while Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer took a swipe at former HHS secretary Alex Azar, who served as president of the U.S. division of Eli Lilly and Company, a major pharmaceutical company.
“[Mr. Becerra] is a capable man. He’s worked hard to make sure people get health care,” Mr. Schumer said. “Some have said, ‘well, he’s not a doctor.’ Neither was the previous Trump nominee for HHS who happened to be a pharmaceutical company executive. What would Americans prefer?”
In her statement, Ms. Collins said that she and Mr. Becerra found common ground on lowering prescription drug prices and reducing U.S. reliance on foreign drug manufacturers.
“Although there are issues where I strongly disagree with Mr. Becerra, I believe he merits confirmation as HHS secretary,” she said.
Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the pro-life Susan B. Anthony List, called Mr. Becerra “the embodiment of the Biden-Harris radical abortion agenda, which is deeply out of step with the majority of Americans.”
Ms. Tanden, the president’s nominee to lead the Office of Management and Budget, withdrew her name from consideration March 2 as opposition mounted to her nomination over her history of name-calling on Twitter. Mr. Biden has yet to nominate another OMB candidate.