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Biden health secretary pick Xavier Becerra braces for contentious Senate hearings

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WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden’s nominee to lead the powerful Department of Health and Human Services is preparing for two days of contentious hearings in a divided Senate, with allies fanning out to defend him as Republicans mobilize to tank his nomination.

If he is confirmed, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, a former member of Congress, will have the daunting task of steering administration policy on the coronavirus pandemic and orchestrating Biden’s goal to get health care to more Americans. He would also be the first Latino HHS secretary.

Becerra will appear before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, or HELP, Committee on Tuesday morning before he faces the Finance Committee on Wednesday.

Both committees, which have jurisdiction over health care issues, are evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans. The HELP Committee includes three potentially pivotal Republican votes, Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Mitt Romney of Utah, as well as rabble-rousers like Rand Paul of Kentucky, who may seek to stir the pot.

Becerra has spoken with almost half the Senate, including Collins, Murkowski and Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., a person familiar with the conversations said. Manchin, who could be a pivotal Democratic voter, recently came out against Biden’s pick to run the Office of Management and Budget, throwing her confirmation into doubt.

“I understand the enormous challenges before us and our solemn responsibility to be faithful stewards of an agency that touches almost every aspect of our lives,” Becerra will say in his opening statement while highlighting his family’s immigration story from Mexico. “I’m humbled by the task. And I’m ready for it.”

HELP Committee Chair Patty Murray, D-Wash., will praise Becerra as a proven “executive leader” who has fought for patients and families’ health care.

“We all want the pandemic to end — which means we all should want the Biden-Harris administration to succeed, and we should be getting qualified nominees like Attorney General Becerra on the job as quickly as possible,” Murray plans to say in her opening statement, according to prepared remarks from her office.

Becerra’s case before the Senate will include his “decades of experience with health care policy” as a member of Congress, his work on drug prices and confronting opioid manufacturers and his fight to protect the Affordable Care Act in court, said a member of Biden’s confirmation team who discussed strategy on condition of anonymity.

It won’t be easy. Becerra is among the few Biden nominees whom Republicans opponents are zeroing in on and believe they have a chance to block.

A letter Monday led by Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, which was signed by 10 other Senate Republicans, voiced “grave concerns” about Becerra’s nomination, citing his past support for “Medicare for All” and his views on liberalizing the immigration system and protecting abortion rights and his skepticism toward religious-based exemptions from laws.

“We ask that you put our country over radical partisan objectives by withdrawing Mr. Becerra’s nomination for HHS Secretary,” read the letter, which was co-signed by dozens of House Republicans.

Most of the 11 Senate signers are on neither committee with jurisdiction, but they will have votes in the full chamber, where Becerra will need 51 votes. If the Senate splits evenly, he can be confirmed with the tiebreaking vote of Vice President Kamala Harris.

Biden’s team has been touting a wave of endorsements or laudatory statements from progressive groups like the abortion-rights group NARAL and Planned Parenthood, medical industry organizations like the American Hospital Association and prominent figures like Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

Biden transition spokesman Andrew Bates said, “Xavier Becerra has decades of health care policy experience, worked with Republicans and Democrats to expand access to Covid treatments and take on opioid manufacturers while leading the largest state department of justice in the country, and has a strong record of fighting to lower costs for patients.”



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Merkel ally says Scotland 'very active' in Brussels – MEP ready to welcome Sturgeon back

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ANGELA MERKEL’s ally David McAllister said he feels Scotland is already a new independent member of the European Union, in a boost to Nicola Sturgeon’s quest to break away from the UK.

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Harris implores Black Americans to get Covid vaccines despite ‘righteous skepticism’

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Vice President Kamala Harris addressed concerns that some Black Americans have had about Covid-19 vaccines, encouraging them to get the shot despite historical skepticism of the medical field.

“We must speak truth about the history of medical testing in this country,” Harris said in an interview with MSNBC’s Rev. Al Sharpton.

“We must be honest about the fact that people have a righteous skepticism about how it has been used, how it has been tested and on whom it will be used,” Harris said.

The U.S. has a long record of unethical medical experimentation on Black Americans, from non-consensual testing on slaves to forced sterilization during the early 20th century and the Tuskegee Syphilis Study. As NBC News has reported, experts have cautioned that this history, along with broader health care disparities in the modern era, has led to a distrust of the vaccine‘s safety.

Harris pointed to her own experience receiving the Covid vaccine to build trust in others.

“I got vaccinated,” she said. “I can tell you first of all that these vaccines are safe. It will save your life. There is a Black woman, Dr. Kizzy Corbet, who was part of the team of scientists who created this vaccine and it will save your life.”

“So, get your vaccination when it is your turn,” Harris said.

But the vaccines’ chaotic rollout, including supply shortages and disruptions with distribution due to winter storms, has created widespread accessibility issues.

The Biden administration recently purchased 200 million doses, and it doubled in distribution numbers last week, sending two million doses to 7,000 pharmacies across the country with its Federal Retail Pharmacy Program. The last five weeks have seen a nearly 70 percent increase in vaccine distribution.

Harris visited a local pharmacy and program participant in Washington D.C. Thursday morning, where she also addressed vaccine skepticism.

“There have been many theories about populations that are experiencing vaccine hesitancy for legitimate reasons that are based on historical experience that we should never forget,” Harris said.

Harris’ interview with Sharpton airs in full on Saturday.

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We miss you already! Leading MEP admits Brussels is 'very, very sad' over Brexit

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THE EU is “very, very, sad” the UK left the bloc as Liz Truss prepares to strike large trade deals with countries across the world, an MEP has said.

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