Confirmation unsure for Biden health secretary nominee Xavier Becerra

WASHINGTON (REUTERS) – The US Senate Finance Committee deadlocked on Wednesday (March 3) over President Joe Biden’s pick to head the Department of Health and Human Services, Mr Xavier Becerra, raising questions about Democrats’ ability to overcome Republican opposition to the California attorney general.

The 14-14 party-line vote sent Mr Becerra’s nomination to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell for further action.

Under new rules to deal with the 50-50 Senate split between the two parties, either can file a motion to bypass a tied committee and bring matters straight to the Senate floor with a separate procedural vote.

Mr Becerra’s fate will depend on Senate Democrats’ ability to stick together and support him, possibly with a tie-breaking vote by Vice-President Kamala Harris.

The defection of one moderate Democrat, Mr Joe Manchin, derailed the nomination of Mr Biden’s pick as budget director Neera Tanden, especially given the lack of Republican support, but administration officials suggested that was an isolated case given lawmakers’ frustration over Ms Tanden’s past tweets.

A spokesman for Mr Manchin could not immediately be reached for comment on Mr Becerra’s nomination.

Mr Biden’s press secretary, Ms Jen Psaki, said the White House remained confident about Mr Becerra’s ultimate confirmation.

“We certainly understood from the beginning that every nominee would not receive 93 votes, but we … remain confident and confidently behind the nomination,” she told reporters.

The Finance Committee in the same session on Wednesday approved two other Mr Biden nominees – Ms Katherine Tai for US Trade Representative and Mr Wally Adeyemo for deputy Treasury secretary – by voice votes, indicating no significant opposition.

Two Finance Committee Republicans, Dr Bill Cassidy and Mr Mike Crapo, said on Wednesday they had opposed Mr Becerra because of his lack of past healthcare experience and challenges as California attorney general to HHS authorities to grant religious conscience waivers to Obamacare mandates that coverage be provided for contraception.

“His qualifications to be HHS secretary seem to be minimal beyond suing HHS,” said Dr Cassidy, who is a physician.

Ms Psaki noted, however, that Dr Cassidy also told Mr Becerra “he’d bet he has the votes” to be confirmed.

Both Mr Crapo and Dr Cassidy said they would work with Mr Becerra to lower healthcare costs if he won confirmation.

In choosing Mr Becerra, 63, a Democratic former congressman, Mr Biden picked an administrator with a long record of supporting the Affordable Care Act, former President Barack Obama’s signature domestic policy achievement.

Mr Biden has said he wants to improve the ACA, popularly known as Obamacare, which relies on private insurers, rather than launch a government-provided healthcare programme.

Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo was sworn in on Wednesday after her confirmation on Tuesday. The Senate also confirmed White House Council of Economic Advisers Chair Cecilia Rouse, bringing the number of Cabinet-level officials confirmed to 12 of 24.

Ms Psaki said Mr Biden remained determined to find a place for Ms Tanden in his administration, but gave no details. She said a replacement nominee for the top spot at the Office of Management and Budget was unlikely to be named this week.

The White House on Tuesday withdrew Ms Tanden’s nomination at her request after efforts to find support from a moderate Republican to replace Mr Manchin’s vote floundered.

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