As the Senate Finance Committee on Wednesday deadlocked along party lines on whether to advance the nomination of Xavier Becerra as secretary of Health and Human Services, a new analysis shows that the 14 Republican members of the panel have taken $36.1 million from the health sector, including $9.6 million from Big Pharma — a fact that progressives say explains the GOP's opposition to President Joe Biden's Cabinet pick, a supporter of Medicare for All.
"While Xavier Becerra has spent his career taking on the pharmaceutical industry for their corrupt price gouging, Senate Republicans have spent their political careers lining their pockets with millions of dollars from Big Pharma and furthering the industry's bottom line in Congress," Mairead Lynn, spokesperson for the Accountable Senate War Room, a project of the watchdog group Accountable.US, said in a statement.
Becerra has pledged to expand healthcare access and lower drug prices. According to Accountable.US, the opposition to Becerra by Republican members of the Senate Finance Committee—who "have oversight of the very same industries that have bankrolled their campaigns with millions of dollars" — reflects "an effort to appease their Big Pharma donors."
The watchdog group highlighted the following GOP lawmakers' conflicts of interest:
- Ranking Member Mike Crapo (R-Id.) "has accepted over $1.8 million from the health sector throughout his career, including over $616,000 from Big Pharma. Crapo also raked in contributions from the healthcare and financial sectors as he was poised to become the Committee chairman at the end of last year," according to Accountable's report.
- Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) "has accepted over $3.7 million from the health sector throughout his career, including nearly $1 million from Big Pharma."
- Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) "has accepted over $1.7 million from the health sector throughout his career, including over $1 million from Big Pharma. Cornyn said the quiet part out loud when he brought up concerns with Becerra's lack of ties to the pharmaceutical industry, implicitly admitting he'd prefer a nominee in the pocket of Big Pharma."
- Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) "has accepted over $4.8 million from the health sector throughout his career, including $1.5 million from Big Pharma."
- Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) "has accepted over $5.1 million from the health sector throughout his career, including over $736,000 from Big Pharma."
- Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) "has accepted over $2.7 million from the health sector throughout his career, including over $651,000 from Big Pharma."
Despite Wednesday's evenly split vote — which made Becerra the first of Biden's Cabinet nominees not to be favorably approved out of committee — his confirmation is not doomed. Once Democrats introduce "a motion to discharge his nomination and hold an additional four hours of debate," Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) can "bring the nomination up for a full Senate vote," Politico reported.
According to The Hill, the right-wing group Heritage Action is running a $500,000 ad campaign in West Virginia and Arizona to undermine Becerra's nomination, portraying him as a "radical pick" with "zero medical experience."
The GOP hopes the ads persuade conservative Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin (W.Va.) or Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.) to vote against Becerra.
Nonetheless, Becerra — a former House Democrat who is now California's attorney general and would be the first Latino to lead the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) — is still "likely to be confirmed as early as next week," Politico reported, "barring any unexpected Democratic defections."
While a Democratic leadership aide told the news outlet that they "remain optimistic" and want to get Becerra approved as quickly as possible given the significance of HHS to the federal government's pandemic response, the 14-14 vote in the Senate Finance Committee reveals the depth of Republican lawmakers' hostility toward Becerra.
The GOP has been trying for weeks to derail the appointment of Becerra, who was first nominated by Biden in December 2020.
As Common Dreams reported last month, watchdog groups and former top federal health officials denounced Senate Republicans for what they described as a deliberate attempt to undermine the Biden administration's response to Covid-19 by needlessly delaying Becerra's confirmation hearing — leaving the key agency that plays a role in overseeing vaccine distribution, among other things, without a permanent director amid a catastrophic public health crisis.
As Politico noted, "The Senate's ongoing work on Biden's $1.9 trillion Covid relief bill and a pile-up of other nominees awaiting confirmation complicates the timeline for Becerra — particularly if Vice President Kamala Harris needs to be on hand to break a tie."
Regarding the Republican lawmakers who have been obstructing Becerra's confirmation, Lynn said that "it's obvious what motivates their opposition."
"But it's time for these senators to stop catering to Big Pharma and instead confirm Becerra quickly and work with the Biden administration to get this pandemic under control and the American people back on their feet," she added.