WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden's nominee to lead the powerful Department of Health and Human Services appeared Tuesday before the Senate in the first of two hearings, with allies fanning out to defend him as Republicans mobilize to tank his nomination.
If confirmed, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, a former congressman, will have the daunting task of steering administration policy on the coronavirus pandemic and orchestrating Biden's goal to get health care to more Americans. He would also be the first Latino HHS secretary.
"Attorney General Becerra has the experience and principles needed for this important role," Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Chair Patty Murray, D-Wash., said in her opening remarks, praising Becerra as a proven "executive leader" who has fought for patients and families' health care.
"We have a lot of work to do, and no time to waste," she said, calling on the Senate to "move quickly to confirm" him after the hearings.
Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, the Republican ranking member, voiced sharp criticism of Becerra during his opening remarks, indicating how contentious the nomination has become.
"You've also been an advocate for more government interference between government and their doctors," he said, citing Becerra's past support for replacing private insurance with a "Medicare for all" system. He also took aim at Becerra's record as California's top prosecutor and questioned his experience, saying that his congressional service doesn't give him the needed subject matter expertise.
"I'm not sold yet," Burr said. "I'm not sure you have the necessary experience or skills to do this job at this moment."
The HELP Committee includes three important GOP votes: Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Mitt Romney of Utah. None revealed how they'd vote in their questioning.
Collins pressed Becerra on the lack of a provider relief fund in Biden's Covid relief bill. Murkowski invited him to visit Alaska, an offer he said he will take her up on. Romney grilled him on his opposition to outlawing "partial birth abortion," saying they wouldn't find common ground on that issue — but could on others.
Others, like Sen. Mike Braun, R-Ind., and Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., pressed Becerra on his experience and health care vision.
Becerra is scheduled to face the Senate Finance Committee on Wednesday.
Prior to the Tuesday hearing, Becerra had spoken with almost half the Senate, including Collins, Murkowski and Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., a person familiar with the conversations said. Manchin, who could be a pivotal Democratic voter, recently came out against Biden's pick to run the Office of Management and Budget, throwing her confirmation into doubt.
"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 said in his opening statement, while highlighting his family's immigration story from Mexico. "I'm humbled by the task. And I'm ready for it."
Becerra's case before the Senate will include his "decades of experience with health care policy" as a member of Congress, his work on drug prices and confronting opioid manufacturers and his fight to protect the Affordable Care Act in court, said a member of Biden's confirmation team who discussed strategy on condition of anonymity.
Biden's team has been touting a wave of endorsements or laudatory statements from progressive groups like the abortion-rights group NARAL and Planned Parenthood, medical industry organizations like the American Hospital Association and prominent figures like Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
It won't be an easy battle.
A letter Monday led by Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, which was signed by 10 other Senate Republicans, voiced "grave concerns" about Becerra's nomination, citing his past support for "Medicare for All" and his views on liberalizing the immigration system and protecting abortion rights and his skepticism toward religious-based exemptions from laws.
"We ask that you put our country over radical partisan objectives by withdrawing Mr. Becerra's nomination for HHS Secretary," read the letter, which was co-signed by dozens of House Republicans.
Download the NBC News app for breaking news and politics
Most of the 11 Senate signers are on neither committee with jurisdiction, but they will have votes in the full chamber, where Becerra will need 51 votes. If the Senate splits evenly, he can be confirmed with the tiebreaking vote of Vice President Kamala Harris.