Washington D.C., Mar 3, 2021 / 06:00 pm (CNA).- The Senate Finance Committee was divided on the confirmation of Xavier Becerra as Secretary of Health and Human Services on Wednesday.
In voting to favorably recommend the confirmation of Becerra to the entire Senate on Wednesday, the committee was equally divided by party, with 14 members of each party voting for and against Becerra. Democrats supported his confirmation while Republicans opposed.
Per Senate rules, the vote will now be transmitted to the secretary of the senate and either party’s leader can move to force a confirmation vote by the entire chamber.
Becerra, currently California’s attorney general, has been vociferously opposed by pro-life groups as health secretary nominee. On Wednesday, Republican senators brought up his record on abortion and religious freedom as reasons to oppose his confirmation.
“His qualifications for HHS Secretary seem to be minimal, beyond suing HHS,” said Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.).
Becerra was grilled over his treatment of Catholic religious last week at his confirmation hearings. As attorney general of California, he defended state mandates that required even Catholic religious to provide abortion coverage, and forced crisis pregnancy centers to advertise for abortions. Regarding the latter mandate, the Supreme Court ruled against Becerra in 2018 in NIFLA v. Becerra.
Becerra also sued the Trump administration over its religious and moral exemptions that it granted to the HHS contraceptive coverage mandate—an act which forced the Little Sisters of the Poor to go back to court.
The Little Sisters of the Poor had benefited from the religious exemption to providing coverage for contraceptives, sterilizations, and abortifacients. They moved to return to court to defend their exemption after California and Pennsylvania sued to take it away.
Senate Pro-Life Caucus chair Steve Daines (R-Mont.) called Becerra “as radical as it gets” in a statement on Wednesday, saying that he “is extremely pro-abortion” and “attacks religious freedom.”
In an exchange with Daines last week, Becerra would not name one abortion restriction that he supported. As attorney general, he also filed briefs in opposition to other states’ abortion restrictions, and fought to liberalize federal restrictions on the abortion pill regimen. At his confirmation hearing last week, Becerra pushed for women to be able to receive the abortion pill regimen remotely.
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), chair of the finance committee, invoked “women’s health care” to support Becerra on Wednesday.
“I just feel very strongly over the last four years, women across the country saw their health providers close down, their access to reproductive health care, including abortion, ripped away. And the attacks that were leveled against the attorney general, in my view, twist reality when it comes to women’s health care,” Wyden said.
In his written responses to questions for the record submitted after his confirmation hearing, Becerra committed to acting to fund abortion providers—but would not commit to religious freedom protections for the Little Sisters of the Poor.
In response to Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Becerra committed to reviewing the Title X family planning program—an act that is expected to roll back the Trump administration’s requirements that recipients not refer for abortions or be co-located with abortion facilities.
Planned Parenthood withdrew from the program in 2019 due to the prohibitions. President Biden pledged to repeal the requirements and, in a recent order, instructed the health secretary to review the program—the first administrative step toward repealing the requirements.
Planned Parenthood Action has also pushed for Becerra’s confirmation, calling it “a big deal.”
Becerra also would not commit to not re-imposing the contraceptive mandate on the Little Sisters of the Poor. The Supreme Court last July sided with the sisters in their defense of their religious exemption to the mandate. Biden has said he would repeal that exemption.
“I strongly believe women should not be put through unnecessary hurdles to access to health care,” Becerra said when asked by Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) if he would commit to keeping the exemption in place.
In written questions, submitted for the record, Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) noted that Becerra’s positions on “late-term abortion, life, conscience protections, and overreaching government policies that infringe on religious freedoms have raised significant concerns among many South Carolinians.”
Becerra, in response, cited his Catholic faith as a defense of his record.
“As a person of faith, I believe deeply in religious freedom,” he said. “I was raised in a Catholic home, and we would get up early on Sunday mornings to go to mass.”
He also would not directly answer questions on the transgender issue.
When asked if his agency would “ensure that children are not subjected to experimental hormone therapy,” and if he believed that “doctors and hospitals should have the right to refuse to participate in gender transition therapies and treatments due to medical, religious or moral convictions,” Becerra said he would rely on the expertise of “doctors and scientists.”
“I believe medical decisions should be left to individuals and their health providers,” he said.
Rachel Levine, a man identifying as a transgender woman, is currently under consideration to be nominated as assistant HHS secretary, and would serve under Becerra if both were to be confirmed.
Levine has previously stated support for hormone therapy for teenagers, provided that the individual, parents, doctor, and therapist all supported the procedure.
In response to a series of questions by Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) on conscience protections for doctors, religious freedom, the Hyde Amendment, and protections for infant survivors of abortions, Becerra simply said he would “follow the law” if confirmed.
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