Government watchdog organizations and former top federal health officials are accusing Senate Republicans of deliberately undercutting the Biden administration's response to the raging coronavirus pandemic by slow-walking the process of confirming Xavier Becerra, the president's nominee to head up the crucial Department Health and Human Services.
The U.S. Covid-19 death toll surpassed 450,000 this week, but the Senate made little progress in advancing Becerra's nomination thanks in large part to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) obstruction of a must-pass organizing resolution, a stalling tactic that prevented the new Democratic majority from quickly taking charge of key committees.
"There has never been a more critical need for strong, consistent leadership at our nation's top health agency, and instead Senate Republicans have refused to prioritize this nominee and are signaling that this obstruction and delay might continue."
—Mairéad Lynn, Accountable.US
While the Senate finally passed the resolution on Wednesday, the needless delay caused by McConnell's attempt to protect the archaic legislative filibuster delayed work on Becerra's confirmation; the HHS nominee has yet to have his first confirmation hearing, leaving the key agency without a permanent director.
HHS Deputy Assistant Secretary of Budget Norris Cochran is currently serving as acting head of the agency, which plays a central role in the federal government's response to the pandemic—including crafting public health guidelines and overseeing vaccine distribution.
"Delaying a hearing for the head of Health and Human Services in the middle of a pandemic that has claimed more than 450,000 American lives is negligence in plain sight," Mairéad Lynn, spokesperson for watchdog group Accountable.US's Senate War Room, said in a statement Thursday. "There has never been a more critical need for strong, consistent leadership at our nation's top health agency, and instead Senate Republicans have refused to prioritize this nominee and are signaling that this obstruction and delay might continue."
"American lives are on the line," Lynn added, "and Senate Republicans have a choice: keep shilling for special interests like the drug companies, or let the Biden administration tackle the pandemic head-on and finally get our country back on track."
Politico reported last week that the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee was forced to push back action on Becerra's confirmation due to the "leadership stalemate over the filibuster."
"The health panel traditionally holds a hearing on the HHS pick before the Senate Finance Committee votes on confirmation. Those plans were disrupted by lengthy haggling over Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's demand that Democrats commit to preserve the filibuster," Politico noted. "The Finance Committee, meanwhile, confirmed that it's received and is now reviewing all of Becerra's required paperwork, but has yet to set a hearing date of its own."
Accountable.US pointed out Thursday that in the 60 days since Biden announced his decision to nominate Becerra for the HHS post in December, "roughly 11,924,100 Americans have been infected with Covid-19 and 169,300 Americans have lost their lives to the virus."
With the Senate impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump likely to consume most of the chamber's attention next week, it is unclear when Becerra will finally receive a hearing—let alone a confirmation vote.
McConnell and other Republicans have publicly signaled that they intend to fight Becerra's confirmation, objecting specifically to his record of support for women's reproductive rights as California's attorney general.
In a floor speech last week, McConnell called Becerra "famously partisan" and claimed that his "recent experience in health policy seems largely limited to promoting abortion on-demand." Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) recently characterized Becerra as "radically pro-abortion" and complained about the California AG's defense of the Affordable Care Act's contraception mandate.
By contrast, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.)—the number three Senate Democrat and new chair of the chamber's health committee—said after speaking to Becerra in mid-December that he is "an incredibly knowledgeable candidate who has worked for decades to improve the wellbeing of families across the country."
"Given the historic crisis we are facing as a nation and the clear qualifications of this nominee," Murray said at the time, "I'm going to be pushing to make sure Attorney General Becerra receives swift confirmation."
In an op-ed for USA Today last week, former HHS secretaries Kathleen Sebelius and Donna Shalala warned that delaying Becerra's confirmation "means delaying filling all the other key roles under him at HHS that are critical for our pandemic response."
"Without the secretary, we will face a backlog that will slow our national response to this crisis, upend progress already being made, and prevent action when it is needed most," Sebelius and Shalala wrote. "The Senate should move on this nomination as soon as possible and put in place this qualified nominee who can help keep us safe and healthy, end this crisis, and get us back to our lives."
Accountable.US echoed the former secretaries' warnings in a recent report (pdf) stressing that the need for a "fully functional" HHS has "never been greater" as the Covid-19 continues to take thousands of lives per day in the U.S. and new variants spread, potentially complicating the Biden administration's vaccine strategy.
"After inheriting a once-in-a-generation pandemic and botched vaccination plan from the previous administration, President Biden is at risk of going without an HHS secretary for possibly weeks," Accountable.US warned in a statement last week. "The American people have waited long enough for our leaders to take charge of this pandemic. They can't afford further delays."