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When Vice President-elect Joe Biden introduces his health team today, he’ll be bringing back to the fore the former Surgeon General from the Barack Obama era, along with the technocrat who fixed the marred Obamacare sign-up system and an infectious-disease specialist at Boston’s Massachusetts General Hospital to jointly head up his administration’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.
But it’s Biden’s pick for Health and Human Services Secretary who is turning heads for all sorts of reasons. Xavier Becerra, a 24-year veteran of Washington who went home early in 2017 to be California’s Attorney General, is on deck to lead one of the biggest and most consequential pieces of the federal government, if he is confirmed. And it’s that last point — the need for the Senate to sign-off on the choice — that many in Washington are watching.
If Becerra can cobble together 50 Senators and Vice President Kamala Harris, whose unfinished term he is currently serving as California’s A.G., he would be the first Latino to run the department that includes the Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the National Institutes of Health, plus the Head Start pre-kindergarten programs. It’s a sprawling job at a critical moment in the nation’s public health, but it’s among the Biden nominations that could get rocky if Republicans win either of the Georgia Senate runoffs that are coming on Jan. 5.
Even before the news broke of his imminent nomination, there was wariness in various corners about Becerra. Republicans recall his two decades in the House, when he was a reliably partisan member of the Democratic Leadership team under House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. He has been a vocal supporter of Medicare for All, the single-payer health plan backed by Sen. Bernie Sanders. Becerra’s time back in California has featured roughly 100 lawsuits trying to stop much of President Donald Trump’s agenda. If The Resistance had a solicitor general, it would have been Becerra.
At the same time, policy hands quietly note that it’s one thing to defend Obamacare in lawsuits and quite another to run it. And even some Democrats are grumbling that Becerra should have been installed as Attorney General, a more prestigious role in most administrations and a set of powers that he already knows from his time running the second-largest Justice Department in the country. Now he is seen in Democratic circles as having bumped out an early favorite for the HHS gig, New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lynn Lujan Grisham. (The New York Times reports Lujan Grisham, who is also Latino, was instead offered but turned down the position of Interior Secretary. The official line is Lujan Grisham, a former state health secretary, wanted to focus on the pandemic back home.)
Biden’s Cabinet confrontations are already shaping up to be the under-predicted story of this transition. Progressives and liberals have been openly warning Biden that he cannot stack his top ranks with centrists or friends, instead demanding ideological and identity diversity. It is increasingly likely that Rep. Marcia Fudge, an Ohioan who was being pushed hard by her Congressional Black Caucus allies as Biden’s Agriculture Secretary due the department’s role in fighting hunger, may wind up instead with Housing and Urban Development — a move that still adds Cabinet diversity but that same say plays into outdated and vaguely racist ideas that Ag is a place for white farmers and public housing is a spot for persons of color. Still, there is no denying that Black Americans have higher poverty rates and thus higher need for Agriculture Department food-security programs than their white neighbors. As Fudge herself told Politico: “You know, it’s always, ‘We want to put the Black person in Labor or HUD.’”
Late Monday, word leaked that Biden had also settled on Lloyd Austin, a retired four-star Army general, as his choice to run the Pentagon. If Congress agrees to waive a requirement that retired military personnel wait seven years between wearing the uniform and running the Defense Department and if Austin can win confirmation, he would be the first Black individual to run the Pentagon. (Congress granted Trump’s first Pentagon chief, Gen. James Mattis, such a waiver. The top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee in the past has seemed less than eager to repeat that exception. The Washington Post has a helpful reminder of just about everything every Democrat has said in the past about this provision here.)
Biden’s Cabinet confrontations are already shaping up to be the under-predicted story of this transition. Progressives and liberals have been openly warning Biden that he cannot stack his top ranks with centrists or friends, instead demanding ideological and identity diversity. It is increasingly likely that Rep. Marcia Fudge, an Ohioan who was being pushed hard by her Congressional Black Caucus allies as Biden’s Agriculture Secretary due the department’s role in fighting hunger, may wind up instead with Housing and Urban Development — a move that still adds Cabinet diversity but that some say plays into outdated and vaguely racist ideas that Ag is a place for white farmers and public housing is a spot for persons of color. As Fudge herself told Politico: “You know, it’s always, ‘We want to put the Black person in Labor or HUD.’”
Meanwhile, Conservatives have been critical of other picks, such as Office of Budget and Management nominee Neera Tanden, for being too partisan. If confirmed, Tanden would make history as the first woman of color to lead the powerful and scrappy administrative hub for all of government, but she’s also a lightning rod for Republicans who take exception to her history of snarky tweets.
Some cogs in the Biden-Harris coalition are determined not to repeat the mistakes of 2009, when they showed deference to Obama for his first round of picks. They were left with the likes of insiders like Rahm Emanuel, Larry Summers and Tim Geithner instead of liberal warriors who would have sought to jail Wall Street execs for the financial meltdown a year earlier. The same activists say they won’t shy away from the fight this time. The behind-the-scenes lobbying inherent with all incoming administrations doesn’t seem to be bothering with the usual subtleties this year. As a year smote by pandemic is coming to its end, the time for such niceties seems a luxury not worth the effort.
Still, there is a tension mounting that cannot be ignored. When Biden heeds these activists’ wishes, they seem to be directing him to run head-first into some of the trickiest confirmation battles, which are by no means guaranteed wins. Biden’s willingness to follow these suggestions from the important constituencies that gave him the White House may end up hurting their causes in the short-term, if multiple nominees can’t get across the confirmation finish line. But it could in turn remind everyone of the stakes they are fighting for.
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