The Senate narrowly confirmed Xavier Becerra to be the Health and Human Services secretary on Thursday, giving the former California attorney general a crucial role in fighting the pandemic.
Becerra, the son of Mexican immigrants, is the first Latino HHS secretary.
The vote was 50 to 49. Maine GOP Sen. Susan Collins joined Senate Democrats in favor of the nomination. Hawaii Democratic Sen. Mazie Hirono did not vote.
During the confirmation process, Becerra stressed his upbringing, his father’s recent passing and his efforts for expanding health care access as California’s attorney general and a 24-year Congressman representing a Los Angeles-based district
The vast majority of Senate Republicans opposed Becerra’s nomination over his support for abortion rights and his lack of a background as a health care professional.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer praised Becerra’s experience and blasted Republicans’ arguments against him, saying they “almost verge on the ridiculous.”
“They complain loudly that he has no direct experience as a medical professional,” he said. “Even though Republicans voted in lockstep to install Alex Azar, a pharmaceutical executive who raised drug prices and tried to undermine our nation’s health law as the previous HHS Secretary.”
Becerra’s primary task will be combating the spread of Covid, which has infected over 29.6 million people and killed over 538,000 people in the United States.
“I understand the enormous challenges before us and our solemn responsibility to be faithful stewards of an agency that touches almost every aspect of our lives,” said Becerra at a nomination hearing in February.
The former California Attorney General has been a chief defender of the Affordable Care Act in court. While the Trump administration joined a coalition of Republican state attorneys general to invalidate the landmark health reform law, Becerra led a group of Democratic attorneys general arguing why the law remains valid. At issue was whether Congress’ reduction of the penalty for not having health insurance to zero rendered the individual mandate unconstitutional and caused the entire law to fall.
Becerra has also been outspoken advocate for women’s health, the rights of undocumented immigrants and for Medicare for All.
Of the 23 Cabinet-level positions requiring Senate consideration, 20 have now been confirmed.
Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, Small Business Administrator Isabel Guzman and US trade representative Katherine Tai were confirmed earlier this week. Labor Secretary nominee Marty Walsh, the mayor of Boston, is expected to be next.
CNN’s Jasmine Wright and Tami Luhby contributed to this report.