The U.S. Senate on Thursday narrowly confirmed Xavier Becerra to serve as Secretary of Health and Human Services following weeks of stiff opposition from Republicans.
"There is so much work to be done—and with this pandemic the clock is already ticking, and the reality is we are already way, way behind," said Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. "We all want the pandemic to end, which means we all should want the Biden-Harris administration to succeed, and we should be getting qualified nominees like [California] Attorney General Becerra on the job as quickly as possible."
The vote was 50-49, with just one Republican, Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, voting yes. Democrat Sen. Mazie Hirono of Hawaii did not vote.
As HHS secretary, CNBC reported, Becerra will have "a major role in one of the federal government's most daunting undertakings ever"—tackling vaccinations, testing, and the overarching public health emergency of the coronavirus pandemic. His reach as HHS chief will cover the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, the Food and Drug Administration, and National Institutes of Health.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said on the floor that "Becerra's nomination should not have taken this long" and blamed Republicans, who "have tried to derail his nomination" since President Joe Biden first announced it in early December.
"They've complained loudly that he has no direct experience as a medical professional, even though Republicans voted in lock-step to install Alex Azar, a pharmaceutical executive who raised drug prices and tried to undermine our nation's health law, as the previous HHS Secretary," Schumer added.
The GOP obstruction also came in for criticism from Accountable Senate War Room, a project of the government watchdog group Accountable.US. The group previously warned that delays in Becerra's confirmation hearing risked the administration's response to the coronavirus given that the agency "plays a critical role in fighting the pandemic, as it's tasked with distributing hundreds of millions of vaccines across the country."
Becerra has "a track record of taking on Big Pharma and holding the industry accountable for price gouging throughout his time as California's Attorney General and has worked to expand healthcare access under the Affordable Care Act, making him an obvious target for partisan opposition," the group has stated.
BREAKING: Xavier Becerra has been confirmed as the Secretary of the @HHSgov despite months of obstruction, delay, and smears led by Senate Republicans intimidated by Becerra's track record of holding accountable #BigPharma special interests.— Accountable.US (@accountable_us) March 18, 2021
Congratulations, Mr. Secretary. pic.twitter.com/9nZ5Bw24Ly
On Thursday, Accountable.US called Republicans the "antagonists in the Senate" who, "backed by Big Pharma," made Becerra a target due to his history of holding the for-profit health industry to account.
"It's no secret why Senate Republicans took aim at Becerra's confirmation: from deep inside the pockets of Big Pharma and with wealthy donors to please, they felt threatened by Becerra's track record and promise to work for the American people," Mairead Lynn, spokesperson for Accountable Senate War Room, said in a statement.
Lynn's group cited among its evidence Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, who admitted in December that he preferred someone like Azar, "who worked for pharma"—a reference his time as an executive with pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly—over a candidate like Becerra. The group also noted that Cornyn has received over $1.7 million from the health industry.
Further evidence is the record of Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), who's gotten over $1.5 million in campaign cash from the pharmaceutical industry, the group said. They also pointed to ProPublica reporting from April last year saying that Burr "has been one of the healthcare industry's staunchest friend," by taking actions including overseeing "the implementation of major legislation to pump taxpayer money into private sector initiatives to address public health threats."
What's more, the analysis found, since 2013, "Burr and his wife bought and sold between $639,500 and $1.1 million of stock in companies that make medical devices, equipment, supplies, and drugs."
In May, Burr stepped down as Intelligence Committee chair amid a Justice Department investigation into stock trades he made ahead of the pandemic-triggered economic downtown. The probe was ultimately closed in January without charges.
According to Lynn, the GOP opposition was ultimately ineffective.
"It's no surprise that the American people didn't buy this charade" to cast Becerra as unqualified, she said.
"During the worst health crisis in modern history," she added, "he'll be joining the slate of Biden's crisis-tested Cabinet to continue working on tackling this pandemic and getting the American people back to their lives."
Becerra's confirmation was welcomed by other progressive groups including NARAL Pro-Choice America, which said he'd "be able to make reproductive freedom the priority that it should be," and Equality California, who called Becerra a "Pro-equality champion" who would "be a strong advocate for #LGBTQ+ health and well-being."