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Biden announces health team, including Becerra for HHS secretary

The former House member has been California attorney general since early 2017

Then-Vice President Joe Biden, center, and then-Rep. Xavier Becerra, D-Calif., on Capitol Hill in December 2016.
Then-Vice President Joe Biden, center, and then-Rep. Xavier Becerra, D-Calif., on Capitol Hill in December 2016. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

President-elect Joe Biden formally announced his health care team on Monday, naming his choice for Health and Human Services secretary and six other people who would guide the nation through the COVID-19 pandemic starting next year.

The formal announcement comes a day after a source told CQ Roll Call that Biden planned to nominate California Attorney General Xavier Becerra as HHS secretary.

Becerra, a former 12-term congressman, sat on the House Ways and Means Committee and chaired the House Democratic Caucus. He left Congress to become California’s attorney general in 2017. As attorney general, he led a coalition of states defending the 2010 health care law in Texas v. California, the lawsuit seeking to overturn that law that was brought by conservative state officials and backed by the Trump administration. The Supreme Court is expected to issue a ruling in that case by the end of June.

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Becerra’s legal background could also be helpful if Republicans control the Senate and the incoming Biden administration is forced to make major policy changes through regulations, rather than legislation.

The Congressional Hispanic Caucus, which Becerra once led, praised the pick, noting that the COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately affected Latinos. Becerra would be the first Hispanic HHS secretary.

“As Attorney General, Becerra led the charge to defend the Affordable Care Act, lower prescription drug costs, and protect immigrant families,” Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, the group’s chairman, said in a statement Sunday evening. “We welcome the news of Becerra’s nomination, and the CHC is encouraging President-Elect Biden to appoint five Latinos in the Cabinet, including Latinas in prominent positions.”

Beccera will face the daunting task of continuing to fight the COVID-19 pandemic in the wake of a poor performance by the United States in comparison to other industrialized nations.

Biden also plans to nominate Rochelle Walensky, the chief of infectious diseases at Massachusetts General Hospital, to lead the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

He expects to nominate Vivek Murthy to serve as surgeon general, a role he held from 2014 to 2017, during the Obama administration. Murthy has been advising Biden on the pandemic this year.

Biden also announced officials to oversee the COVID-19 pandemic that would not require Senate confirmation.

Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, is set to continue advising Biden on the COVID-19 pandemic. Fauci said last week he agreed to remain in his role and serve as Biden’s chief medical adviser on COVID-19.

Marcella Nunez-Smith, an associate professor at the Yale School of Medicine, will be the chair of the COVID-19 Equity Task Force, overseeing efforts to reduce racial and ethnic disparities in the care and treatment of the virus that causes COVID-19.

Jeff Zients, who helped oversee efforts to salvage the flawed website during the Obama administration, will serve as the coordinator of the COVID-19 response and as a counselor to the president. Former White House and Defense Department senior advisor Natalie Quillian will be the deputy coordinator.

The Biden team on Friday did not rule out keeping some Trump officials in their roles, as the Obama administration did with Defense Secretary Robert Gates in 2009. Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus task force coordinator, was referenced as one official the Biden team may consider keeping in her role.

Becerra left Congress to return to California and lead an agency where he previously worked as a deputy attorney general from 1987 to 1990. His current tenure at the helm was marked by an aggressive approach challenging Trump administration regulations in dozens of lawsuits involving health care, environmental protection, immigration, education, gun control, women’s health and other social policy issues.

Becerra’s mother was born in Mexico and immigrated to the United States after marrying his father.

While in Congress, Becerra rose with the support of his California Democratic colleague Nancy Pelosi to become the highest-ranking Latino on Capitol Hill during his stint leading the caucus in the 114th Congress. He is the first Latino to hold the office of California attorney general.

House Ways and Means Chairman Richard E. Neal, D-Mass., on Monday said his committee would work with Becerra “to support frontline health care workers, ensure a swift and fair distribution of COVID-19 vaccines, improve nursing home accountability, lower the costs of prescription drugs, and take overdue steps to promote equity in our nation’s health care system.”

Still, Becerra’s nomination faced some quick pushback.

Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the anti-abortion group SBA List, on Sunday night called Becerra an “extremist” on abortion.

“This pick underscores the importance of winning in Georgia to prevent pro-abortion forces from taking control of the U.S. Senate. Republican senators must stand firm and stop this unacceptable nomination from going forward,” she said in a statement.

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