"He's an unqualified radical": Will Becerra's nomination survive a Senate floor vote?

Senate Republicans scored a rhetorical victory by forcing Neera Tanden to withdraw her nomination as OMB director. Now they want a policy victory, or at least score a more political point, by blocking Xavier Becerra’s confirmation as Secretary of Health and Human Services. In fact, Ben Sasse (R-NE) explicitly took aim at Becerra in his statement last night in response to Tanden’s withdrawal:

“Good. Tanden is a hyper-partisan bomb-thrower who doesn’t have the votes. Now that Washington is done talking about Tanden’s tweets, the Senate should focus on Xavier Becerra’s assault on the First Amendment. We don’t need a culture war super-soldier leading the Department of Health and Human Services.”

Earlier, Sasse had wondered why Republicans made Tanden their top target and not Becerra. “Ron Klain and Chuck Schumer know that Xavier Becerra is a wolf who can’t be dressed in sheep’s clothing, so they’re using Neera Tanden as a decoy,” Sasse told National Review. If so, Senate Republicans are certainly making up for lost time. Tom Cotton has reset his aim, and fired a salvo this afternoon:

This story comes from a Becerra trip to China more than twenty years ago, where he brushed off concerns over human-rights violations on his return. At that time, Becerra chalked those up to cultural differences and resolved them through a moral relativism that was hardly novel to Becerra:

For instance, upon returning from his 1997 trip to China, Becerra defended the communist regime against allegations of widespread human rights abuses. While acknowledging that the country needed to improve its record, Becerra said that China has a “different perspective” on the issue.

“We have two very different cultures, and we have two very different perspectives on the world,” Becerra told NPR. “That’s not to say one perspective is better than the other.”

Becerra, first elected to the House in 1992, explained that because China was a developing country with different cultural mores, it was understandable that its leaders take “a dim view of what they consider meddling by the U.S. in its affairs internally — especially with regard to human rights.”

Becerra offered an example from the Chinese perspective. Because the country is struggling to feed its more than 1 billion people, he pointed out, its leaders don’t believe “providing freedom of the press” can be a top priority just yet.

That should make Becerra cringe 24 years later, but in fairness, he’s not the only person who could be embarrassed by that laissez-faire attitude. That pretty much described the mainstream approach to China from both parties, and every administration from Bill Clinton forward — until Donald Trump. Even then, Trump’s hard-nosed trade war with Beijing was prompted by commercial concerns, especially trade violations and intellectual property theft, not human rights issues. If China had made any effort to reform its IP and trade policies, does anyone doubt that Trump would have gladly declared victory and reopened commerce with Beijing?

Besides, this is a bit of a non-sequitur regarding confirmation to HHS. As the pandemic showed, engagement with China will be necessary for the next secretary, but that’s not going to be where human-rights violations get addressed. Republicans have better arguments to use on Becerra, such as his total lack of experience in health care and his attempts to use the courts to impose radical solutions on religious organizations, just to mention a couple of points.

So can Becerra eke through even against united Republican opposition — assuming that’s what transpires? At least in committee, both parties stayed in their trenches, which forced Chuck Schumer to intervene in order to move the nomination to the full Senate:

The Senate Finance Committee on Wednesday voted 14-14 along party lines to advance the nomination of Xavier Becerra as head of the Department of Health and Human Services.

The tied vote ensures a four-hour debate on the Senate floor and a preliminary vote on whether to advance the nomination to a final vote. Democrats require a simple majority in the preliminary vote in order to bring Becerra’s nomination up for a final vote, a Finance Committee spokesman told Bloomberg.

The committee vote makes the predicament plain for Schumer and the White House. It now appears that no Republican will cross the aisle, or at the least none have yet to announce such a move for Becerra. Pat Toomey, who’s retiring, announced his opposition this morning, and cited Becerra’s support for partial-birth abortion as one reason:

No one has heard yet from Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema. Should Becerra be worried? That seems doubtful; Manchin opposed Tanden on the basis of tone rather than policy. Becerra doesn’t have that kind of a track record on tone. Besides, Manchin made his point about bipartisanship on Tanden, and might not be all that keen on kneecapping two Biden appointees in a row. Sinema seems even less likely to do so, given her reluctance to talk at all about these nominations before an actual vote. She’s playing it smart, waiting to see which way the wind blows before opening herself up to flak from either direction.

Right now the smart money is on a 51-50 outcome. People on both sides will work their hardest to get a different result, but that’s the safe bet.