The Senate on Thursday narrowly confirmed Xavier Becerra, California’s lawyer, to be the US Secretary of Health, the first Latino to lead the department that now leads the country’s Covid-19 fight.
The upper house also cleared William Burns as head of the CIA, which put one of the country’s most experienced diplomats in charge of the agency.
Burns, 64, had broad support from both parties. He was confirmed by a simple vote after Republican Senator Ted Cruz took up the nomination he had made in connection with Russia’s Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline with Germany.
With Burns given the green light as head of the Central Intelligence Agency, President Joe Biden now has his full complement of top national security personnel in place.
National Intelligence Director Avril Haines hailed Burns, a former deputy secretary of state, as an “extraordinary public servant” whose decades representing the United States have earned him respect inside and outside the government.
Senators voted 50 to 49, with one Republican voting yes, to confirm Becerra, the 63-year-old son of Mexican immigrants, as health secretary in Biden’s cabinet.
The Department of Health and Human Services is a comprehensive agency that oversees the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which issue guidelines for coronavirus.
Democrats portrayed Becerra as a health care professional who will improve conditions, coverage and care for all Americans.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said the confirmation “should not have taken so long”, but Republicans tried to trace the nomination from the moment Biden announced his election.
He noted how Republicans complained that Becerra had no direct experience as a doctor, although they voted to confirm Alex Azar, a drug leader who “raised drug prices and tried to undermine our nation’s health law,” as the former HHS chief.
Republicans also claimed that Becerra was too liberal and radical for the job and would try to remove private health insurance for millions.
“Becerra has made a career out of promoting right-wing extremist priorities such as free health care for illegal immigrants, open borders and no restrictions on abortion,” Senator Steve Daines tweeted.
Following Becerra’s confirmation, the Senate raised the nomination of Boston Mayor Marty Walsh to head the Department of Labor.
If Schumer confirms, Walsh would be the last secretary of state to join Biden’s team.
Two cabinet-level positions – Head of the Office of Administration and Budget and Presidential Scientific Adviser – remain to be filled.
Biden had appointed Neera Tanden, head of a progressive think tank, to lead OMB. But Republicans tracked down her nomination, the only cabinet crash so far for the Democratic president.