Biden picks California lawyer Xavier Becerra as health secretary

If confirmed, Xavier Becerra will be the first Latino to lead the health department as it struggles to contain COVID-19.

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra is in line to be Biden's health secretary, according to media reports [File: Saul Loeb/ AFP]
California Attorney General Xavier Becerra is in line to be Biden's health secretary, according to media reports [File: Saul Loeb/ AFP]

United States President-elect Joe Biden has selected California Attorney General Xavier Becerra to be his health secretary, according to media reports, a choice that if confirmed would make the former congressman the first Latino to run the department as the coronavirus pandemic reaches new levels across the US.

Separately, Biden picked an infectious disease expert, Dr Rochelle Walensky, to head the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The New York Times newspaper, citing people familiar with the president-elect’s deliberations, on Sunday said the choice of Becerra was a “surprise” and came as Biden faced more pressure to add diversity to his cabinet appointments, after complaints from the Congressional Hispanic Caucus about the lack of Latinos.

Becerra, 62, has carved out more of a a profile on issues of criminal justice, immigration and tax policy and was long thought to be candidate for attorney general. But as California’s top lawyer, Becerra led the coalition of Democratic states defending the Affordable Care Act or “Obamacare” from President Donald Trump’s latest effort to overturn it – a legal case awaiting a Supreme Court decision next year.

A former senior House Democrat, Becerra was also involved in steering the health law through Congress in 2009 and 2010. At the time he told reporters that one of his primary motivations was having tens of thousands of uninsured people in his Southern California district.

‘Champion for working families’

If confirmed, Becerra will lead the health agency as it struggles to handle a resurgence of the coronavirus – including record infections and a daily death toll that has exceeded 2,000 in recent days – and prepares a mammoth effort to vaccinate Americans against the virus.

More than 281,000 Americans have died from COVID-19. The respiratory illness has disproportionally affected Black and Latino people across the US.

“Biden is living up to his commitment to make the cabinet a reflection of diversity,” said Robert Garcia, mayor of Long Beach, California and a longtime ally of Becerra and Biden.

Garcia said Becerra “has a strong record on healthcare but I think it goes beyond that. The president-elect selected someone with the highest levels of integrity and intellect”.

Joaquin Castro, chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, welcomed the choice of Becerra, describing him as a “dedicated public servant” and a “champion for working families”.

“As attorney general, Becerra led the charge to defend the Affordable Care Act, lower prescription drug costs and protect immigrant families,” Castro said, adding that the caucus was “proud” of Becerra’s selection at a time when COVID-19 was devastating Latino communities.

The announcement of the choice of Becerra could come as soon as Monday, the Reuters news agency reported. Biden named some top members of his health team last week and is expected to roll out the full team this week.

Biden has asked Dr Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a member of Trump’s coronavirus task force, to stay on as the chief medical adviser.

The Democratic president-elect also has named Jeff Zients, an economic adviser touted for his managerial skills, as a coronavirus “tsar” to oversee an unprecedented operation to distribute hundreds of millions of doses of a new vaccine, coordinating efforts across multiple federal agencies.

Biden picked Dr Vivek Murthy, a physician and former surgeon general who has gained prominence in recent months as the co-chairman of Biden’s advisory board dealing with the pandemic, to return for a second term as the surgeon general.

Working with Republicans

Becerra’s experience running the bureaucratic apparatus of the California attorney general’s office, as well as his success working with Republicans, helped seal the pick for Biden, according the Associated Press (AP) news agency.

AP noted that Becerra had worked with Louisiana’s Republican attorney general to increase the availability of the COVID-19 drug treatment Remdesivir in their states. He has also worked closely with other Republican attorneys general on legal challenges against opioid manufacturers.

The New York Times newspaper said Becerra’s experience in Washington may also help Biden secure legislative changes to bolster the Affordable Care Act, a central promise of the president-elect’s 2020 campaign.

Becerra served as a Democratic US representative from 1993 to 2017 before moving back to his home state to become the attorney general, succeeding Vice President-elect Kamala Harris.

He has also been vocal in the Democratic Party about fighting for women’s health.

In April, Becerra led a coalition of 22 attorneys generals in challenging a Mississippi law that prohibited doctors from providing abortion services past 15 weeks, calling the ban “unjust, unlawful, and unfair”, according to the Times.

Separately, Biden picked an infectious disease expert, Dr Rochelle Walensky, to head the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The New York Times, citing people familiar with the president-elect’s deliberations, on Sunday said the choice of Becerra was a “surprise” and came as Biden faced more pressure to add diversity to his cabinet appointments, after complaints from the Congressional Hispanic Caucus about the lack of Latinos.

Becerra, 62, has carved out more of a profile on issues of criminal justice, immigration and tax policy and was long thought to be a candidate for the attorney general. But as California’s top lawyer, Becerra led the coalition of Democratic states defending the Affordable Care Act or “Obamacare” from President Donald Trump’s latest effort to overturn it – a legal case awaiting a Supreme Court decision next year.

A former senior House Democrat, Becerra was also involved in steering the health law through Congress in 2009 and 2010. At the time he told reporters that one of his primary motivations was having tens of thousands of uninsured people in his Southern California district.

‘Champion for working families’

If confirmed, Becerra will lead the health agency as it struggles to handle a resurgence of the coronavirus – including record infections and a daily death toll that has exceeded 2,000 in recent days – and prepares a mammoth effort to vaccinate Americans against the virus.

More than 281,000 Americans have died from COVID-19. The respiratory illness has disproportionally affected Black and Latino people across the US.

“Biden is living up to his commitment to make the cabinet a reflection of diversity,” said Robert Garcia, mayor of Long Beach, California and a longtime ally of Becerra and Biden.

Garcia said Becerra “has a strong record on healthcare but I think it goes beyond that. The president-elect selected someone with the highest levels of integrity and intellect”.

Joaquin Castro, chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, welcomed the choice of Becerra, describing him as a “dedicated public servant” and a “champion for working families”.

“As attorney general, Becerra led the charge to defend the Affordable Care Act, lower prescription drug costs and protect immigrant families,” Castro said, adding that the caucus was “proud” of Becerra’s selection at a time when COVID-19 was devastating Latino communities.

The announcement of the choice of Becerra could come as soon as Monday, the Reuters news agency reported. Biden named some top members of his health team last week and is expected to roll out the full team this week.

Biden has asked Dr Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a member of Trump’s coronavirus task force, to stay on as the chief medical adviser.

The Democratic president-elect also has named Jeff Zients, an economic adviser touted for his managerial skills, as a coronavirus “tsar” to oversee an unprecedented operation to distribute hundreds of millions of doses of a new vaccine, coordinating efforts across multiple federal agencies.

Biden picked Dr Vivek Murthy, a physician and former surgeon general who has gained prominence in recent months as co-chairman of Biden’s advisory board dealing with the pandemic, to return for a second term as surgeon general.

Working with Republicans

Becerra’s experience running the bureaucratic apparatus of the California attorney general’s office, as well as his success working with Republicans, helped seal the pick for Biden, according the Associated Press (AP) news agency.

AP noted that Becerra had worked with Louisiana’s Republican attorney general to increase the availability of the COVID-19 drug treatment Remdesivir in their states. He has also worked closely with other Republican attorneys general on legal challenges against opioid manufacturers.

The New York Times said Becerra’s experience in Washington may also help Biden secure legislative changes to bolster the Affordable Care Act, a central promise of the president-elect’s 2020 campaign.

Becerra served as a Democratic US representative from 1993 to 2017 before moving back to his home state to become the attorney general, succeeding Vice President-elect Kamala Harris.

He has also been vocal in the Democratic Party about fighting for women’s health.

In April, Becerra led a coalition of 22 attorneys generals in challenging a Mississippi law that prohibited doctors from providing abortion services past 15 weeks, calling the ban “unjust, unlawful, and unfair”, according to the Times.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies

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