In the election of Xavier Becerra as his Minister of Health, President-elect Joe Biden tapped a strong Affordable Care Act defender who will wonder whether he has the healthcare and management experience needed to make the massive effort to vaccinate a nation against a deadly pandemic
As California’s attorney general, Becerra heads the country’s largest Department of Justice, a powerful seat from which he fought Republicans’ efforts to roll back health insurance. However, he has been less involved in day-to-day work fighting the coronavirus, is not a health professional, and has not overseen an office as sprawling as the Department of Health and Human Services.
With the U.S. expected to begin distributing vaccines in the coming months, few cabinet posts will have such an impact on the nation’s ability to weather the pandemic, an effort likely to determine Biden’s presidency. Allies of Becerra, a former congressman who would become the first Latino HHS secretary at a time when the pandemic is disproportionately affecting people of color, says he is well-suited for the role.
“He has skills that are sometimes beyond technical knowledge,” said Rep. Jimmy Gomez, D-Calif., Who has represented the Los Angeles District near the Becerra Service for about two decades. “Leadership skills, management skills, an understanding of how the hill works, how the Senate works.”
If approved by the Senate, Becerra would lead an agency valued at over $ 1 trillion with 80,000 employees and a portfolio that includes drugs and vaccines, leading medical research, and health insurance programs for more than 130 million Americans. Becerra, 62, tweeted Monday that he helped Congress pass the Affordable Care Act and defended it as California’s attorney general.
“As Secretary of State for Health and Human Services, I will build on our progress and ensure that every American has access to quality, affordable health care – through this pandemic and beyond,” he wrote.
Biden was drawn to the roots of the working class in Becerra, his longstanding efforts to improve access to health care, including in color communities, and his work with Republicans to expand the Affordable Care Act in California, and patient ability To receive coronavirus treatments to two officials familiar with his decision-making process, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.
Becerra and the rest of Biden’s health team will be unveiled Tuesday at a time when the president-elect is under increasing pressure to make sure his cabinet is diverse. Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, the country’s first black woman in office, will also meet with a number of civil rights groups, including the NAACP and the National Action Network, that are expected to emphasize the need for more blacks Cabinet members.
And in a call organized by the Asia-Pacific-US Congress Caucus on Monday, Asia-American Democrats urged members of the Biden transition team to increase the number of those of Asian descent in leadership positions.
“I was very disappointed,” said Rep. Judy Chu, D-Ca., The caucus chair, after meeting Biden’s team for 30 minutes. “We felt like our voices weren’t heard.”
Biden’s election of Becerra smooths concerns of the Hispanic caucus in Congress, which is pushing for Latino representation in one of the top four cabinet positions, but does not end it. Alongside Becerra, whose mother was a Mexican immigrant, the caucus has also pushed for a role for Tom Perez, the current chairman of the Democratic National Committee and former labor secretary.
“As members, we think this is a big step forward,” said Gomez. But he added, “It needs to unfold more.”
“Let’s not forget that the Trump administration selected people who were totally unqualified for many positions and at the same time had a certain path, a certain feeling, and came from a certain perspective,” he said, “so I think this diversity too will be good. “
Then California Governor Jerry Brown named Becerra California’s chief prosecutor in late 2016 after Harris won the US Senate election. He immediately took on a combative tone towards the incoming Trump administration.
“If you want to adopt a forward-looking state that is ready to defend its rights and interests, come to us,” Becerra told reporters hours after her appointment.
Defending California’s implementation of the Affordable Care Act was a key priority, but he also focused on protecting young immigrants from deportation and defending California’s climate change laws.
As HHS secretary, Becerra would also be responsible for overseeing the Office for Refugee Resettlement – the office for caring for unaccompanied minors entering the US illegally – which some Democrats viewed as catching up, particularly due to its immigration work. As attorney general, Becerra helped lead a coalition of attorneys general who sued over the Trump administration’s child segregation policy.
The Republicans immediately made their lines of attack clear. Texas Senator John Cornyn argued that he was ineligible because he had no health or pharmaceutical industry connections, while Indiana Senator Mike Braun blew his Medicare for All support.
In a break with some of his previous picks that emphasized familiarity, Biden doesn’t know Becerra well. Becerra is also not closely associated with Harris. While he was doing her old job, Becerra had spent most of his career in Washington while Harris got through politics back home in California.
Typically, the work of the HHS secretary requires political connections, communication skills, leadership skills, a willingness to familiarize yourself with complex medical issues, and a creative legal sense in order to use extensive regulatory powers without losing the end of litigation.
As a former 12-year-old Congressman, Becerra will step into the job and know Capitol Hill, but will need to make connections with governors who will be oversized roles in distributing the coronavirus vaccine. A close relationship with the President is also of paramount importance. Current Health Secretary Alex Azar has repeatedly drawn the ire of President Donald Trump during the pandemic.
Some of the most talented doctors and researchers in the country work for HHS agencies like the National Institutes of Health, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The idea for Operation Warp Speed, the drive to rapidly develop coronavirus vaccines, was developed within the FDA.
HHS exercises much of its authority through rule-making, and this will be especially important to Biden when its political agenda is hampered by a tightly divided Congress. The major HHS regulated industries have deep pockets and stalls of top notch attorneys always ready to counter politics with lawsuits, and Biden staff believe Becerra’s time to sue the Trump administration over the past four years will help him avoid similar pitfalls.
Alonso-Zaldivar and Mascaro reported from Washington; Ronayne reported from Sacramento, California. Associate press writer Mike Balsamo of Washington contributed to this report.