HHS secy nominee grilled over nun lawsuit

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Xavier Becerra, nominee for Secretary of Health and Human Services, answers questions during his Senate Finance Committee nomination hearing on February 24, 2021 at Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. - If confirmed, Becerra would be the first Latino secretary of HHS. (Photo by Greg Nash / POOL / AFP) (Photo by GREG NASH/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

Xavier Becerra, nominee for Secretary of Health and Human Services, answers questions during his Senate Finance Committee nomination hearing on February 24, 2021 at Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. – If confirmed, Becerra would be the first Latino secretary of HHS. (Photo by GREG NASH/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

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UPDATED 2:15 PM PT – Thursday, February 25, 2021

A hearing before the Senate Finance Committee heated up as Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) and HHS Secretary nominee Xavier Becerra (D) squared off over a controversial case Becerra argued as California’s attorney general. During his confirmation hearing Wednesday, the senator from Nebraska asked Becerra to try and explain his decision to target a Catholic religious order called “The Little Sisters of the Poor” as part of a 2017 lawsuit against the Trump administration.

“Mr. Becerra, you said a little while ago that you’ve never sued the nuns, which is a pretty interesting way of reframing your bullying,” Sasse said. “You actually sued the federal government, who had given an exception to the nuns. Can you explain to us what The Little Sisters of the Poor were doing wrong?”

Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., questions William Burns, nominee for Central Intelligence Agency director, during his Senate Select Intelligence Committee confirmation hearing in Russell Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, on on February 24, 2021. (Photo by Tom Williams / POOL / AFP) (Photo by TOM WILLIAMS/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., questions William Burns, nominee for Central Intelligence Agency director, during his Senate Select Intelligence Committee confirmation hearing in Russell Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, on on February 24, 2021. (Photo by TOM WILLIAMS/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

“So, senator, as I tried to explain,” Becerra answered. “My actions were against the federal government. We never alleged that The Little Sisters of the Poor did anything wrong. Our problem was that the federal government was not abiding by the law as we saw it.”

Sasse asked the HHS Secretary nominee to clarify.

“What were the nuns doing that made it impossible for California to administer their program?” questioned the Nebraska senator. “That was just a complete nonsense answer.”

Becerra tried to dodge, but was caught in seconds and redirected. He tried to slip loose of the senator’s line of questioning by repeating the same non-answer again.

“As I said,” Becerra claimed. “Our action was against the federal government.”

Sasse was undeterred and pushed on, asking Becerra about the nuns once more.

“What did the federal government do?” demanded the Republican. “It was about the nuns. This is nonsense. What you’re saying isn’t true.”

Becerra attempted to get a different result by repeating the same information.

“Senator, the actions of the state of California — and I was defending the actions of our state and the laws that were in place,” Becerra said. “The federal government took actions [and] changed the way that we would have administered the programs that we had under the Affordable Care Act.”

Sasse was not satisfied with Becerra’s attempt to answer.

“So again a whole bunch of words,” Sasse noted. “But you know well — you’re an incredibly smart man — you know well that what the federal government did was make sure that you couldn’t target the nuns. So you can put 17 layers of you were following the law to go after the federal government for administering the program or doing X or doing Y that made it difficult for California law to administer the program.’”

The volley continued for several minutes. Sasse attempted five more times to get Becerra to explain how he could rationalize that a lawsuit named after The Little Sisters of the Poor had nothing to do with them. Sasse emphasized Becerra targeted religious liberty.

With his confirmation approaching, Democrats are worried Becerra won’t support their Medicare for All push. Additionally, Republicans have condemned his plan to restore federal funding to Planned Parenthood. As a result, senators on both sides of the aisle expressed concerns that his career choices may make him too polarizing to explain to their constituents back home.

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