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Senate to confirm Xavier Becerra as HHS secretary as U.S. tries to emerge from Covid crisis

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Xavier Becerra, nominee for Secretary of Health and Human Services, answers questions during his Senate Finance Committee nomination hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, February 24, 2021.

Greg Nash | Pool | Reuters

The Senate plans to confirm Xavier Becerra as Health and Human Services secretary on Thursday as the U.S. aims to contain Covid-19 and achieve a semblance of normal life by summer.

Becerra, California’s attorney general, is set to win approval by a narrow margin in a Senate split 50-50 by party. Nearly all Republicans have opposed the former U.S. representative’s nomination, questioning his health-care experience and past support for “Medicare for All.”

Becerra would be the first Latino to lead HHS.

The support of Sen. Susan Collins, a Maine Republican, was expected to remove the need for Vice President Kamala Harris to cast a tiebreaking vote.

If confirmed, Becerra will take a major role in one of the federal government’s most daunting undertakings ever. HHS will help to facilitate Covid-19 vaccinations and testing efforts as health officials hope widespread inoculation will beat back a mutating virus and allow businesses and schools to reopen.

While the virus’s spread has slowed in the U.S., the country is recording about 54,800 Covid-19 cases and at least 1,200 deaths every day, according to a seven-day average calculated by CNBC. About 15.5% of adults, and 37.6% of people over 65, are fully vaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Becerra will also have a prominent part to play if and when the Biden administration moves on to health-care reform. President Joe Biden has backed the creation of a Medicare-like public insurance option and changes to control the cost of drugs and care.

Becerra will become the 20th member of the president’s Cabinet confirmed by the Senate. The chamber has turned its attention to filling out the executive branch since its passage of the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill earlier this month.

Speaking at a Senate confirmation hearing last month, Becerra said he understands “the enormous challenges before us.” He said he would work not only to contain the virus but also to boost access to affordable health care.

Becerra touted his work as California’s attorney general to make Covid treatments more widely available and crack down on opioid manufacturers.

He succeeded Harris as the largest U.S. state’s top law enforcement official in 2017 after her election to the Senate the previous year. Becerra won a four-year term in 2018.

He represented California in the U.S. House from 1993 to 2017.

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