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HHS secretary to take more active public role in coming weeks

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President Biden on Friday phoned a man who, on paper, serves as one of the country’s top federal health officials but, in reality, has kept a notably low profile as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to rage. In a recent phone call from the Oval Office, Mr. Biden told Health and Human Health Services Secretary Xavier Becerra that he is pleased with the former California congressman’s oversight of the sprawling department, and that he looks forward to boosting secretary’s profile in the coming weeks, multiple people confirm to CBS News.

“He just wanted him to know directly that he feels good about the work going on at HHS and that, going forward, he looks forward to working closely together,” said one of the people, who, like other administration officials and lawmakers familiar with the situation, was granted anonymity to speak frankly about the conversation.

Another person familiar with the call insisted that the president reached out to Becerra “willingly” and not in response to recent news reports or under pressure from any particular constituency.  

The call capped weeks of bruising headlines about Becerra’s diminished role in overseeing the federal response to the pandemic and how he’s taken a back seat, both publicly and in regular policy and planning meetings, to White House COVID response czar Jeffrey Zients, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky, Dr. Anthony Fauci, and others, even though he outranks them all on the Biden administration’s flow charts.

In a sign of that planned enhanced profile, Becerra is scheduled to travel on Wednesday to Minnesota alongside First Lady Jill Biden for what the White House calls a “listening session” about how the administration’s American Rescue Plan helps pay for expanded child care programs.

Becerra, who until last year served as California attorney general, previously spent more than 20 years in Congress representing parts of Los Angeles. One of the longest-serving Latino members of Congress, and a former top lieutenant to Speaker Nancy Pelosi who helped lead House Democrats, Becerra has seen his profile diminished considerably in the past year as he was the last member of the federal leadership team overseeing the pandemic response to win Senate confirmation and take his new position. 

U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Xavier Becerra testifies before the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions hearings to examine school reopening during COVID-19, focusing on supporting students, educators, and families, on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, September 30, 2021.

GREG NASH/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Unlike Fauci, a career infectious disease expert, or Zients, a former Obama administration official, Becerra keeps a low public profile, and the White House communications team has kept him away from appearing on weekday cable news programs or Sunday morning talk shows on CBS and other networks.

But the Biden administration has faced pressure from some of Becerra’s former congressional colleagues to ensure he is given a broader portfolio and public profile. During the presidential transition, members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus wrote to Mr. Biden’s team mentioning Becerra as a possible Cabinet secretary — ideally to lead the Justice Department, given his role as top prosecutor in California. 

Becerra emerged as the pick to lead HHS after other potential candidates, including former Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo, passed on the role given the tricky politics surrounding the pandemic response. She later was nominated to lead the Commerce Department. 

New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham also campaigned hard for the job, but was passed over by transition officials concerned she lacked the proper executive management experience.

News of the conversation and plans to boost Becerra’s stature were first reported by CNN.



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