The Senate confirmed President Joe Biden's controversial top health care nominee Thursday by a narrow 50-49 margin, handing the Biden administration a victory after a contentious confirmation battle.
Sen. Susan Collins (R., Maine) crossed the aisle and joined swing vote Sen. Joe Manchin (D., W. Va.) to confirm former California attorney general and congressman Xavier Becerra to head the Department of Health and Human Services.
Conservative groups and Republican senators decried Becerra's confirmation after criticizing him as a partisan nominee. They warned that Becerra would revive Obama-era battles over religious liberty as he heads the department responsible for implementing federal health care policy.
"Becerra isn’t right for the job because in the middle of a global pandemic the Department of Health and Human Services needs to be focused on health and human services," Sen. Ben Sasse (R., Neb.) said. "Becerra is a culture warrior who made his name in bloody-knuckles politics by bullying nuns."
"We have seen a lot of bad nominations from President Biden, but Xavier Becerra is one of the worst," Sen. Marco Rubio (R., Fla.) said. "Our nation’s top health official should have some qualifications other than being a woke culture warrior who targets nuns and religious hospitals with the power of the state. This was not a nomination to make the country healthier and safer, it was a nomination to weaponize a massive bureaucracy to carry out the radical left’s woke agenda."
Left-wing groups and Democrats cheered the vote, saying that Becerra's confirmation is key for fighting the coronavirus pandemic. Manchin pointed to Becerra's pledge to be a bipartisan secretary to explain his support after receiving pressure from conservative groups to tank the nomination.
"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," Manchin said in a statement.
Becerra faced criticism over his record on abortion and legal persecution of an order of nuns. During one of his confirmation hearings, he defended his aggressive litigation against the Little Sisters of the Poor over the Affordable Care Act's birth control coverage mandate.
"I have never sued any nuns. I have taken on the federal government, but I've never sued any affiliation of nuns, and my actions have always been directed at the federal agencies because they have been trying to do things that are contrary to the law in California," Becerra said. His misleading defense prompted Sen. Ben Sasse (R., Neb.) to rip Becerra for misrepresenting his litigation record and "bullying" the order of nuns.
The contentious hearings resulted in a Senate panel that deadlocked 14-14 over advancing his nomination for a full vote. The Senate cleared him once again Thursday after a procedural vote broke 51-49 in favor of advancing the nomination for a full vote on the Senate floor. Collins was the only Republican to vote to move ahead with the vote, signaling her support for the nomination.
"Although there are issues where I strongly disagree with Mr. Becerra, I believe he merits confirmation as HHS Secretary," Collins said.
An advertising campaign aimed at pressuring moderate Democratic senators to oppose Becerra proved unsuccessful after the conservative Heritage Action for America pumped $500,000 into television advertisements in West Virginia and Arizona.
Becerra's confirmation comes on the heels of Neera Tanden's failed nomination to lead the Office of Management and Budget. Tanden withdrew her nomination after coming under fire for her past rhetoric on Twitter and her personal attacks on Republican senators.