HHS pick says pandemic is top job, but agenda is broader

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Xavier Becerra listens during a confirmation hearing to be Secretary of Health and Human Services before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2021 on Capitol Hill in Washington. (Sarah Silbiger/Pool via AP)

WASHINGTONHealth secretary nominee Xavier Becerra told senators Tuesday that confronting the coronavirus pandemic will be his first priority if confirmed, but he also pledged to expand health insurance, rein in prescription drug costs and reduce racial and ethnic disparities in medical care.

“To meet this moment, we need strong federal leadership," Becerra said at the first of two hearings on his nomination. “I understand the enormous challenges before us and our solemn responsibility to faithfully steward this agency that touches almost every aspect of our lives.”

Becerra now serves as California's attorney general and previously represented the Los Angeles area for more than 20 years in the U.S. House. A liberal politician-lawyer, he faces opposition from many GOP senators, who question his support for abortion rights and government-run health insurance, along with his lack of a clinical background. However, in the past 25 years, only one medical doctor has led the Department of Health and Human Services in a permanent capacity.

Appearing before the Senate health committee, Becerra seconded President Joe Biden’s goals of 100 million vaccine shots in his first 100 days, increased coronavirus testing, ramped-up DNA mapping of the virus to track worrisome mutations and reopening schools and businesses.

On health insurance, he pledged to work to expand the Obama-era Affordable Care Act, though in the past he's supported a government-run system like Sen. Bernie Sanders' “Medicare for All” idea. He said he would act to lower drug prices, particularly the cost of insulin. It's a goal that has bipartisan backing. Republican Sen. Mike Braun of Indiana noted that Becerra seems to have no drug industry support, adding, “I think I know why.”

Although leading Republicans are portraying Becerra as unfit, Democrats seem unfazed about his prospects, accusing the GOP of playing politics despite the urgency of dealing with the coronavirus pandemic.

Following Tuesday's appearance before the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, Becerra will be questioned Wednesday by the Finance Committee, which will vote on sending his nomination to the Senate floor. If confirmed, he'd be the first Latino to head HHS, a $1.4 trillion agency with a broad portfolio that includes health insurance programs, drug safety and approvals, advanced medical research and the welfare of children.

Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, the ranking Republican on the health committee, left no doubt that Becerra faces tough scrutiny.