WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Senate Finance Committee deadlocked on Wednesday over President Joe Biden’s pick to head the Department of Health and Human Services, Xavier Becerra, raising questions about Democrats’ ability to overcome Republican opposition to the California attorney general.
The 14-14 party-line vote sent Becerra’s nomination to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell for further action. Under new rules to deal with the 50-50 Senate split between the two parties, either can file a motion to bypass a tied committee and bring matters straight to the Senate floor with a separate procedural vote.
Becerra’s fate will depend on Senate Democrats’ ability to stick together and support him, possibly with a tie-breaking vote by Vice President Kamala Harris.
The defection of one moderate Democrat, Joe Manchin, derailed the nomination of Biden’s pick as budget director, Neera Tanden, especially given the lack of Republican support, but administration officials suggested that was an isolated case given lawmakers’ frustration over Tanden’s past tweets.
A spokesman for Manchin could not immediately be reached for comment on Becerra’s nomination.
Biden’s press secretary, Jen Psaki, said the White House remained confident about Becerra’s ultimate confirmation.
“We certainly understood from the beginning that every nominee would not receive 93 votes, but we … remain confident and confidently behind the nomination,” she told reporters.
The Finance Committee in the same session on Wednesday approved two other Biden nominees – Katherine Tai for U.S. Trade Representative and Wally Adeyemo for deputy Treasury secretary – by voice votes, indicating no significant opposition.
Two Finance Committee Republicans, Bill Cassidy and Mike Crapo, said on Wednesday they had opposed Becerra because of his lack of past healthcare experience and challenges as California attorney general to HHS authorities to grant religious conscience waivers to Obamacare mandates that coverage be provided for contraception.
“His qualifications to be HHS secretary seem to be minimal beyond suing HHS,” said Cassidy, who is a physician.
Psaki noted, however, that Cassidy also told Becerra “he’d bet he has the votes” to be confirmed.
Both Crapo and Cassidy said they would work with Becerra to lower healthcare costs if he won confirmation.
In choosing Becerra, 63, a Democratic former congressman, Biden picked an administrator with a long record of supporting the Affordable Care Act, former President Barack Obama’s signature domestic policy achievement.
Biden has said he wants to improve the ACA, popularly known as Obamacare, which relies on private insurers, rather than launch a government-provided healthcare program.
Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo was sworn in on Wednesday after her confirmation on Tuesday. The Senate also confirmed White House Council of Economic Advisers Chair Cecilia Rouse, bringing the number of Cabinet-level officials confirmed to 12 of 24.
Psaki said Biden remained determined to find a place for Tanden in his administration, but gave no details. She said a replacement nominee for the top spot at the Office of Management and Budget was unlikely to be named this week.
The White House on Tuesday withdrew Tanden’s nomination at her request after efforts to find support from a moderate Republican to replace Manchin’s vote floundered.
(Reporting by David Lawder and Andrea Shalal; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Howard Goller)