Biden picks Xavier Becerra for HHS secretary, Rochelle Walensky for CDC head

President-elect Joe Biden has chosen California Attorney General Xavier Becerra as his nominee for HHS secretary. Becerra has led the Democratic states’ court fight to protect the Affordable Care Act. Biden also picked Rochelle Walensky to lead the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, sources familiar with the matter told Politico on Sunday.

As California’s attorney general, Becerra has led the coalition of Democratic states defending “Obamacare” from the Trump administration’s latest effort to overturn it, a legal case awaiting a Supreme Court decision next year.

Becerra also led a petition asking the U.S. Supreme Court to hear a case involving 21 state attorneys general challenging the Trump administration’s criteria for handing out Title X funding. He also appealed a challenge to California’s right-to-die law.

In 2020, Becerra filed an antitrust case against Sutter Health, alleging that the not-for-profit healthcare giant was using its market dominance in Northern California to illegally drive up prices.

In 2018, Modern Healthcare ranked Becerra #59 in its list of the 100 Most Influential People.

Walensky is the chief of infectious diseases at Massachusetts General Hospital and a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School.

If confirmed by the Senate, Becerra will be the first Latino to head HHS, a $1-trillion-plus agency with 80,000 employees and a portfolio that includes drugs and vaccines, leading-edge medical research and health insurance programs covering more than 130 million Americans.

A former senior House Democrat, Becerra played a role in steering the Obama health law through Congress in 2009 and 2010. At the time he would tell reporters that one of the primary motivations for him was having tens of thousands of uninsured people in his Southern California district.

Becerra won’t be going it alone. Biden, who is expected to announce key health care picks this coming week, is taking a team approach to his administration’s virus response.

Businessman Jeff Zients is expected to be named as Biden’s White House coronavirus coordinator. An economic adviser to former President Barack Obama, Zients also led the rescue of the website after its disastrous launch in 2013. And former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, a co-chair of Biden’s coronavirus task force, is expected to return in a new role akin to the top medical adviser.

But the core components of HHS are the boots on the ground of the government’s coronavirus response. The Food and Drug Administration oversees vaccines and treatments, while much of the underlying scientific and medical research comes from NIH. The CDC takes the lead in detecting and containing the spread of diseases. CMS provides insurance coverage for more than 1 in 3 Americans, including vulnerable seniors, as well as many children and low-income people.

On Friday, the CDC recommended, for the first time that people always wear a mask when they are not at home. Biden has been calling for a nationwide mask mandate, and said he will ask Americans to wear a mask during his first 100 days in office.

Under President Donald Trump, CDC was relegated to a lesser role after agency scientists issued a stark early warning that contradicted Trump’s assurances the virus was under control, rattling financial markets. The FDA was the target of repeated attacks from a president who suspected its scientists were politically motivated and who also wanted them to rubber-stamp unproven treatments.

Early in California’s coronavirus response in April, Becerra defended broad shutdowns Gov. Gavin Newsom had put in place to curtail the pandemic, including limits on religious gatherings. Three churches in Southern California had sued Newsom, Becerra and other state officials because in-person church services had been halted.

In an interview with AP, Becerra said that while people have the right to practice their religion, “no one is entitled to endanger the life of someone else simply so that he can extend the exercise of his or her religion beyond means that would now start to imperil the health and life of another person.”

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, said a person familiar with the process but not authorized to comment publicly. Becerra had worked with Louisiana’s Republican attorney general to increase the availability of the COVID-19 drug treatment Remdesivir in their states. He’s also worked closely with other Republican attorneys general on legal challenges against opioid manufacturers.

Biden’s offer was extended to Becerra on Friday. The president-elect has been under pressure from the Congressional Hispanic Caucus to appoint Latinos to the Cabinet.

As the top law enforcement official of the nation’s most populous state, Becerra jokingly became known in Democratic legal circles as the man who sued Trump more than anyone else. Beyond health care, the lawsuits centered on issues from immigration to environmental policies.

Before becoming state attorney general, Becerra had served for more than a decade in Congress, representing parts of Los Angeles County. He had also served in the California state assembly after attending law school at Stanford.

His mother was born in Jalisco, Mexico, and emigrated to the U.S. after marrying his father, a native of Sacramento, California, who had grown up in Mexico.

Becerra often cites his parents as his inspiration, saying they instilled in him a strong work ethic and a desire for advancement. His father worked road construction jobs, while his mother was a clerical employee. Becerra is married to Dr. Carolina Reyes, a physician who specializes in maternal and fetal health.

In an AP profile published last year, a lifelong friend of Becerra’s said he learned to stay calm and self-controlled in high school as a varsity golfer and an exceptional poker player. Becerra studied the advice of famous golfers while practicing with a set of used clubs costing less than $100.

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