WASHINGTON — The U.S. Senate Finance Committee deadlocked on Wednesday over President Joe Biden’s nominee to head the Department of Health and Human Services, Xavier Becerra, raising questions about Democrats’ ability to overcome Republican opposition to the California attorney general.
The 14-14 party-line vote sent 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.
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 Finance Committee in the same session on Wednesday approved two other Biden nominees – Katherine Tai for U.S. Trade Representative and Wally Adeyemo for Deputy Treasury Secretary – by voice votes, indicating no significant opposition.
Two Finance Committee Republicans on Wednesday said they had opposed Becerra because of a lack of past healthcare experience and because of his challenges as California attorney general to HHS authorities to grant religious conscience waivers to Obamacare mandates to provide coverage for contraception.
“His qualifications to be HHS Secretary seem to be minimal beyond suing HHS,” said Senator Bill Cassidy, a Louisiana Republican who is also a physician.
Senator Mike Crapo of Idaho, the top Republican on the panel, said he opposed Becerra because of his challenges on behalf of California to HHS authorities on contraception. But both Crapo and Cassidy said they would work with Becerra to lower healthcare costs if he won confirmation.
On Tuesday, Biden withdrew the name of another nominee, Neera Tanden, to head the Office of Management and Budget. Her nomination ran aground over past divisive social media posts that targeted both Democrats and Republicans.
In Tanden’s case, Democrat Joe Manchin of West Virginia withdrew his support, citing Tanden’s past social media posts criticizing his daughter, the CEO of a health firm. His opposition made it impossible for Democrats to overcome unified Senate Republican opposition to Tanden.
A spokesman for Manchin could not immediately be reached for comment on Becerra’s nomination.
In choosing Becerra, a fellow Democrat and a Latino former congressman, Biden picked an administrator with a long record of supporting the Affordable Care Act, former President Barack Obama’s key domestic policy achievement. Biden has said he wants to improve the ACA, which relies on private insurers, rather than launch a new government-provided healthcare program.
On Tuesday, the Senate confirmed Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo and White House Council of Economic Advisers Chair Cecilia Rouse, bringing the number of cabinet-level officials confirmed to 12 of 24.
(See a graphic on Biden’s cabinet nominees https://graphics.reuters.com/USA-BIDEN/CABINET/yxmvjeyqkpr.)
(Reporting by David Lawder Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Howard Goller)