The Senate Finance Committee deadlocked on sending Joe Biden's controversial health care nominee for a confirmation vote Wednesday, as activist groups ratcheted up pressure on moderate Democrats to tank the nomination.
Xavier Becerra, Biden's pick to lead the Department of Health and Human Services, has come under fire from conservative groups for his track record on religious freedom, gun control, and support for Medicare for All. The conservative Heritage Action for America unveiled two television advertisements aimed at swinging the votes of moderate Democratic senators Joe Manchin (W.Va.), Mark Kelly (Ariz.), and Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.).
The advertisements, one of which will run in Arizona and the other in West Virginia, criticize Becerra's decision to pursue legal action against an organization of nuns over contraceptive coverage mandates and his support for stringent gun-control measures. The group is pumping $500,000 into the advertisement campaign to pressure Manchin, Sinema, and Kelly to torpedo Becerra's nomination because of Becerra's divisive history and lack of health care experience. The West Virginia advertisement also targets Becerra's support for a California municipal ban on coal imports, a major issue for West Virginians.
A senior GOP aide said that the advertising campaign helps break through a media that is "running interference for the Biden administration."
"Anything that highlights Becerra’s record is helpful because it increases the price moderates pay for holding hands with the radical elements that control the party," the aide said.
Another Senate GOP aide noted that Manchin holds all of the leverage in the upper chamber because of his unique position as a Democratic senator in a red state. "Joe Manchin is the most powerful man in Washington because he’s the only Democrat who can win West Virginia," the aide said. "California liberals love Becerra’s take-no-prisoners liberalism, but that’s a hard sell in West Virginia and Manchin knows it."
The Senate Finance Committee split 14-14 along party lines on voting Becerra's nomination to the full Senate, leaving the decision on moving forward with the vote to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.). Schumer is likely to move the nomination to a vote next week, according to Politico. With a 50-50 Senate and Republicans likely to be united in opposition to Becerra, just one Democratic defection is necessary to defeat the nomination.
Manchin and Sinema did not respond to requests for comment on how they will vote on Becerra's nomination. On the Republican side, Sens. Susan Collins (Maine) and Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) have both indicated they could still back the former California attorney general, although both voted against sending his nomination to the Senate floor.
The tied vote on Becerra's nomination comes shortly after Neera Tanden, Biden's former pick to lead the Office of Management and Budget, withdrew her nomination in the face of bipartisan criticism for her social media posts and rhetoric. Becerra is widely considered to be the next most contentious Biden Cabinet nominee.
In two separate congressional hearings, Senate Republicans attacked Becerra for his stances on abortion, government-run health care, and legal pursuit of the Little Sisters of the Poor. Becerra defended his record by misleadingly claiming that he had never sued any religious orders, prompting Sen. Ben Sasse (R., Neb.) to launch several attacks at Becerra for misrepresenting his record and "bullying" a group of nuns.