By Tyler Pager, Adam Cancryn and Alice Miranda Ollstein, Politico-
President-elect Joe Biden has selected California Attorney General Xavier Becerra to serve as his secretary of Health and Human Services, choosing an experienced politician to help oversee the government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, according to three people familiar with the decision.
Becerra, who was also under consideration for other roles in Biden’s Cabinet, emerged as a frontrunner to run HHS late last week, and Biden himself offered him the job on Friday, a source familiar with the decision said.
Becerra, 62, gained national recognition in recent years for overseeing California’s multitude of legal battles against President Donald Trump’s administration — as well as helming blue states’ defense against a GOP lawsuit aimed at eliminating Obamacare.
A veteran of Washington, he spent nearly 25 years in the House of Representatives culminating in a stint as chair of the Democratic caucus. Becerra also sat on the powerful House Ways and Means subcommittee overseeing health issues. Yet unlike earlier contenders to be Biden’s HHS secretary, he has not held a top health policy position before. Then-California Gov. Jerry Brown tapped Becerra to be attorney general in 2017, replacing Kamala Harris after she was elected to the Senate.
If confirmed, Becerra would be the first Latino to run the health department — a role that will thrust him into the middle of a high-stakes pandemic response set to determine the trajectory of the next four years. The New York Times first reported Becerra’s selection.
Biden’s decision to choose Becerra for the top health post marks the conclusion of a turbulent process, in which the Biden camp had to scramble to fill one of the administration’s leading health positions as they prepare to take on the country’s worst health crisis in more than a century.
The president-elect team’s focus on setting up a pandemic response team within the White House has raised questions about the role the health secretary will play in the Biden administration, according to four people familiar with the process, creating additional uncertainty around the Cabinet post.
Becerra emerged as a top contender late in the process after Biden’s team considered a number of other candidates including former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy — who will be reprising that role in the Biden administration — New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo. The Biden transition did not respond to a request for comment.
The Biden team has been planning to announce a slate of top health positions this week, which will include Jeff Zients as the coronavirus coordinator and Murthy as surgeon general. Murthy will take on an expanded portfolio, working closely with Zients on the coronavirus response. Marcella Nunez-Smith, a professor at Yale who is an expert on health care inequality, will have a senior role focused on health disparities. That announcement may be pushed back because of the delay in selecting Becerra.
At one point last week, plans were in place for Biden to announce Raimondo as his HHS nominee. The president-elect never directly offered the position to Raimondo, but people close to him indicated the job was hers if she wanted it, and preparations were underway with the assumption she would fill the role, according to three people familiar with the process.
But then Raimondo made a public announcement Thursday, saying she would not be Biden’s health secretary. Josh Block, a spokesman for Raimondo, pushed back against the notion that Raimondo turned down the Biden staff, saying her focus remained on Rhode Island.
“Certainly on this one, they are struggling,” one of the people familiar with the transition’s efforts said before they settled on Becerra. “They had the person they wanted, and that person isn’t doing it. Are there plenty of qualified people? Yes. Do they have the setup they wanted? No.”
Still, a source close to Biden stressed that this kind of last-minute scramble is not unprecedented, pointing to President Obama tapping Tom Daschle as HHS Secretary only to have him withdraw amid revelations over delinquent taxes and Kathleen Sebelius assume the post instead.
“We’d rather feel good and get it right instead of rushing to get something out the door,” the source said. “Poor personnel choices can create much more sustainable problems than an extra day or two or three of vetting.”
Raimondo was always ambivalent about leaving Rhode Island in the middle of her term to move to Washington, D.C., a place she has never wanted to live, according to two people familiar with her thinking. Raimondo has two school-aged children and had major trepidations about relocating them to a new school — she made it clear to advisers that the position had to be the right one. Raimondo wanted to be Treasury secretary (Biden selected former Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen for that position), but she would also likely accept Commerce secretary if it was offered, the people said.
Advisers to Raimondo were particularly concerned about how the health secretary position was being set up in the Biden administration. They worried that when anything went wrong in the coronavirus response, she would be pinned with the blame, but any success in fighting the virus would be credited to the Covid-19 response operation being run out of the White House, according to people familiar with their thinking.
Zients, who will be in charge of the White House’s coronavirus office, and Raimondo have a personal relationship that dates back years, according to one person familiar with their friendship, but Raimondo’s advisers were worried she would play second fiddle to Zients in the administration.
The source close to Biden told POLITICO that the transition team is aware of these concerns, but that those who worry the HHS won’t have any real power in the administration are guilty of “an insulting misunderstanding.”
“The only person who can truly undermine the Department of Health and Human Services is the president,” the source said. “Biden has clearly said he will listen to the scientists. He’s raised up Fauci, who works at NIH, who reports to the secretary … At the end of the day, HHS writes the regs, implements them, obtains the data, and presents the data.”
By selecting Becerra, Biden is elevating a longtime politician who became a star in Democratic circles during the Trump era, winning praise for his flurry of lawsuits challenging the president’s most divisive policies.
California has sued the Trump administration more than 100 times over a wide range of issues, from immigration to the environment to health care. That effort has included challenges to Trump regulations rewriting parts of the Affordable Care Act, as well as rules affecting access to federal health benefits like Medicaid.
Becerra is also leading the multistate defense against a Republican-led lawsuit aimed at striking down Obamacare in its entirety — a suit that the Trump administration has backed and that the Supreme Court is expected to rule on within months.
Yet while allies touted his ability to organize dozens of blue states in opposition to the Trump administration, Becerra has little experience managing a bureaucracy as large and diverse as HHS. He also has little background in public health, a drawback that could raise questions about his readiness to direct a pandemic response and vaccine distribution campaign that rank among the most complex federal undertakings in U.S. history.
Others fear his record of vocally supporting Medicare for All and abortion rights could endanger his confirmation if Republicans hold the Senate majority. The influential anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony List slammed him Sunday night as an “extremist,” and wrote that “Republican senators must stand firm and stop this unacceptable nomination from going forward.”
A source familiar with the transition decision responded that Becerra has a history of reaching across the aisle, citing his work with California Republicans on anti-vaping initiatives and experimental drugs to treat Covid-19. Asked about Becerra’s calls for a single-payer health system, the source said the team is confident he will support Biden’s pledge to create a public insurance option that will compete with private plans.
Still, the selection is likely to calm the nerves of Democrats puzzled by the drawn out search for a health secretary — and narrow the race for a pair of other high-profile positions. Becerra had been among the contenders to be Biden’s attorney general, as well as to fill the California Senate seat vacated by Vice President-elect Kamala Harris.
It may also ease tensions between the Biden camp and Latino groups that have pushed hard for Lujan Grisham to run the health department.
Minutes after the news of his appointment broke, Latino lawmakers and advocacy groups said they were excited and relieved that a son of Mexican immigrant would be in charge not only of addressing Covid-19 but health access more broadly.
“To have someone who knows our community is really gratifying,” said Janet Murguia, the president of UnidosUS and a former adviser to President Bill Clinton. “Diverse communities have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic and I think the country is going to benefit from the wealth of his experience.”
The Congressional Hispanic Caucus, which had been lobbying for Lujan Grisham, called Becerra “a champion for working families.”
Lujan Grisham, a co-chair of the transition, had made it clear that she wanted to serve as the health secretary, but people familiar with the process said Biden’s team had favored other candidates. Grisham, who served as New Mexico’s secretary of health, turned down the Biden team’s offer to be secretary of Interior, which hurt her candidacy for other positions in the administration, those familiar with the conversations said.
On Sunday night, Lujan Grisham released a statement saying she already has “the best job in the world as Governor of New Mexico” and that she looks forward to working with the Biden administration from that post.
New Mexico Sen.-elect Ben Ray Lujan criticized Biden’s top advisers in a meeting Thursday with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus for how the transition team had treated Lujan Grisham, especially for leaks that the governor had declined to lead the Department of Interior. The group has been frustrated with the lack of Latinos chosen for top positions in the Biden administration. Becerra is now the second Latino selected for the Cabinet after Biden picked Alejandro Mayorkas to serve as secretary of Homeland Security.
Joanne Kenen contributed reporting.