President Biden’s nominee for health secretary, Xavier Becerra, pledged Tuesday morning to work to “restore faith in public health institutions” and to “look to find common cause” with his critics, as Republicans sought to paint him as a liberal extremist who is unqualified for the job.
Appearing before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, Mr. Becerra, the attorney general of California, was grilled by Republicans who complained that he has no background in the health profession, and who targeted his support for the Affordable Care Act and for abortion rights.
“Basically, you’ve been against pro-life, on the record,” Senator Mike Braun, Republican of Indiana, said to Mr. Becerra. He asked whether Mr. Becerra would commit to not using taxpayer money for abortions, which is currently barred by federal law, except in instances where the life of the mother is at stake, or in incest or rape.
“I will commit to following the law,” Mr. Becerra replied — leaving himself some wiggle room should the law change.
Tuesday’s appearance was the first of two Senate confirmation hearings for Mr. Becerra; he is scheduled to appear before the Senate Finance Committee on Wednesday. Despite the tough questions, Mr. Becerra appears headed for confirmation in a Senate evenly split between Democrats and Republicans, but with Vice President Kamala Harris available to break a tie.
If confirmed, Mr. Becerra will immediately face a daunting task in leading the department at a critical moment, during a pandemic that has claimed half a million lives and has taken a particularly devastating toll on people of color. He would be the first Latino to serve as secretary of the federal Department of Health and Human Services.
While Mr. Becerra, a former member of Congress, lacks direct experience as a health professional, he took a deep interest in health policy while in Washington and helped write the Affordable Care Act. He has more recently been at the forefront of legal efforts to defend it, leading 20 states and the District of Columbia in a campaign to protect the act from being dismantled by Republicans.
Republicans and their allies in the conservative and anti-abortion movements have seized on Mr. Becerra’s defense of the A.C.A. as well as his support for abortion rights. Senator Tom Cotton, Republican of Arkansas, branded Mr. Becerra an “unqualified radical” in a post on Twitter on Monday, saying, “Any Senator supporting him will pay a price with voters.”
The Conservative Action Project, an advocacy group, issued a statement on Monday signed by dozens of conservative leaders, including several former members of Congress, complaining that Mr. Becerra had a “troubling record” with respect to “policies relating to the sanctity of life, human dignity and religious liberty.”
They cited in particular his vote against banning “late-term abortion,” and accused him of using his role as attorney general “to tip the scales in favor of Planned Parenthood,” a group that advocates abortion rights. Asked by Senator Mitt Romney, Republican of Utah, about the late-term abortion vote, Mr. Becerra noted that his wife is an obstetrician-gynecologist, and said he would “work to find common ground” on the issue. Mr. Romney was not impressed. “It sounds like we’re not going to reach common ground there,” he replied.
Democrats are emphasizing Mr. Becerra’s experience leading one of the nation’s largest justice departments through an especially trying period, and his up-from-the-bootstraps biography. A son of immigrants from Mexico, he attended Stanford University as an undergraduate and for law school. He served 12 terms in Congress, representing Los Angeles, before becoming the attorney general of his home state in 2017.
In her opening remarks, Senator Patty Murray, who is presiding over Tuesday’s hearing as chairwoman of the Senate health committee, said Mr. Becerra had “proven himself as an executive leader by seeing one of the nation’s largest justice departments through one of the most challenging periods in recent history” and spotlighted his commitment to social justice.
“He has held companies accountable for flouting Covid-19 safety rules and putting workers at risk,” Ms. Murray said. And, she added, “he has worked throughout his career to advocate on behalf of communities of color across health, immigration, education.”