Who wants to be HHS secretary?

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Quick Fix

— President-elect Joe Biden is still searching for a health secretary, after his latest top candidate abruptly took herself out of contention.

— Biden plans to put Jeff Zients in charge of leading the Covid-19 response, with Vivek Murthy returning to the role of surgeon general.

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First up on Biden’s Inauguration Day coronavirus to-do list: Ask every American to wear a mask for 100 days.

WELCOME TO FRIDAY PULSE — where Biden’s new Covid czar has already been hard at work on another pressing challenge: The need for a halfway decent bagel place in Washington, D.C. Tips to [email protected] and [email protected].

Driving the Day

WHO WANTS TO BE HHS SECRETARY? — Joe Biden’s health secretary is set to become one of the most consequential figures of his new administration – assuming he can eventually find one.

Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo is a no, abruptly ending her candidacy just hours after those in Biden’s orbit began referring to her as the lead candidate. New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham was once thought to be a top contender, yet has since fallen to the back of the pack despite the pleas of her allies in Congress. And former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy will be returning to his old job. (More on that below.)

— The Biden transition team had hoped to announce its HHS picks as soon as this weekend, as part of a slate of senior health care appointments. But the last 48 hours appear to have scrambled the race for one of the biggest roles in a Biden administration that will immediately confront a worsening pandemic.

“I think we’re all confused,” one person close to the transition told PULSE after Raimondo publicly dropped out, leaving the administration with no remaining obvious choice for health secretary.

Other Democrats are taking comfort in the party’s deep bench of health care experts, expressing confidence that the Biden team can still find plenty of highly qualified candidates to run HHS.

“It’s a staggeringly impactful job,” said one former senior Obama HHS official. “I would assume there’s no shortage of eager and appropriate nominees.”

— By this time in the prior two transitions, the HHS secretary was picked. Trump publicly announced Tom Price on Nov. 29, 2016, while Obama had picked Tom Daschle by mid-November 2008.

What Biden defenders say: This transition has been complicated by 2020’s unusual dynamics, like Covid-related logistics and Trump’s election challenges, plus Biden’s pledge to make his team diverse — an important goal that’s made personnel decisions more complex.

— But don’t forget: Until the job is filled, nothing’s final. Kathleen Sebelius said no tojoining Obama’s Cabinet in December 2008, only to reverse course and accept the HHS secretary nomination in February 2009 after Daschle’s confirmation fell apart.

WHAT IS SET: JEFF ZIENTS, MURTHY TO TAKE BIG ROLES — Zients, who helped lead the crash team to fix HealthCare.gov in 2013-2014, will play a similar role steering the Covid-19 response, POLITICO’s Alice Miranda Ollstein and Tyler Pager reported.

Biden also will tap Murthy to be surgeon general again, after a tenure that got started late — with the National Rifle Association helping hold up his nomination for more than a year — and ended early, when President Donald Trump fired Murthy about 20 months before his term was set to end.

That said, PULSE expects Murthy to be the most super-charged surgeon general in modern history, with a direct line to the West Wing, after closely advising Biden through his campaign and becoming one of the president-elect’s most trusted confidants on the pandemic.

But he isn’t the only doctor set to have the ear of the president…

TONY FAUCI WILL BE A ‘CHIEF MEDICAL ADVISER’ Biden said in a Thursday CNN interview that he spoke with Fauci earlier in the day and asked him to remain in his role at NIH and serve as chief medical adviser, POLITICO’s Matthew Choi writes.

Biden had pledged on the campaign trail to empower the longtime infectious disease expert, after Trump often discarded Fauci’s advice.

“I asked him to stay on the exact same role he’s had for the past several presidents, and I asked him to be a chief medical adviser for me as well, and be part of the Covid team,” the president-elect told CNN’s Jake Tapper.

WHAT PULSE WANTS TO KNOW: When Biden has a question on Covid strategy, who’s going to be the final voice? Zients, Murthy, Fauci and the to-be-determined HHS secretary all could, presumably.

ADD ONE MORE DOC TO THE MIX: MARCELLA NUNEZ-SMITHA co-chair of Biden’s Covid-19 advisory board, Nunez-Smith will take a key role in the administration’s pandemic response focused on health disparities.

The Yale professor is an expert on health care inequality — an area that the incoming administration has made a focus amid a health crisis that’s disproportionately affected communities of color.

“Folks who are African Americans and Latinos are the first ones hurt when something happens, the last ones to recover,” Biden said Thursday on CNN. “They need the help and they need to get it immediately.”

Biden World

WHAT ELSE WE LEARNED ABOUT BIDEN’s COVID AGENDAOne of Biden’s first moves in combating the pandemic will be to ask Americans to wear masks for 100 days after his inauguration, he said on CNN. That’s a period during which roughly 100 million people most vulnerable to the virus could receive a vaccine, assuming the FDA authorizes one this month.

Biden also joined the chorus of prominent figures who have offered to take the Covid-19 shot on camera as soon as Fauci declares it safe and effective.

— Biden backed a bipartisan coronavirus relief proposal. The president-elect called a bipartisan $908 billion relief plan “a good start,” adding that Congress should pass it. Congressional Democratic leaders had previously urged Senate Republicans to make the proposal the basis of a compromise bill, in hopes of reaching an agreement before the end of the year.

“If Mitch McConnell just brought the bill up, just put it on the floor, I believe … that it would pass,” Biden said.

In Congress

DELAURO VOTED TOP HOUSE APPROPRIATOR — Rep. Rosa DeLauro will chair the powerful House Appropriations Committee next year after winning the gavel in a landslide on Thursday, POLITICO’s Caitlin Emma reports.

The 77-year-old easily beat two other longtime lawmakers for the role, where she’ll be a central part of negotiations aimed at executing on Biden’s spending priorities. DeLauro previously chaired the Labor-HHS-Education subcommittee that oversees funding for the federal health agencies.

— What DeLauro has promised: The Connecticut lawmaker has vowed to do away with the Hyde Amendment — the provision that bars the use of federal funds to pay for abortion, and an element that often threw a wrench into negotiations over Labor-HHS-Education spending bills.

She’s also pledged to reform the appropriations process to make it more transparent and ensure it better targets investments to underserved and marginalized communities.


TRUMP EXTENDS NATIONAL GUARD’s COVID FUNDING — The president approved requests from nearly every state to federally fund the National Guard’s Covid-19 relief work through March, Alice reports.

The move will prevent the funding from lapsing at the end of the year. But the White House will still require most states to continue paying a quarter of the cost — including Florida and Texas, which had received a special carveout from the cost-sharing mandate earlier this year.

National Guard members have spent the last several months serving as reinforcements for states by helping run test sites, deliver supplies and perform a series of other pandemic-related tasks. Governors had pressed the White House in recent days to keep that arrangement in place through at least the end of the Trump administration.

Biden has already pledged to keep the funding in place as soon as he’s sworn in.

FIRST IN PULSE: DOZENS OF LAWMAKERS WANT TELEHEALTH MEASURES EXTENDED — Four dozen members of Congress are calling for legislation making permanent a series of pandemic measures expanding coverage of telehealth services.

In a letter to congressional leaders led by Sen. Brian Schatz, the lawmakers called telehealth a “critical tool during the COVID-19 pandemic” and argued that making the temporary coverage expansions permanent would encourage even greater investment in the technology.

“Without more certainty about the future of Medicare coverage, many organizations are not investing in all of these areas to optimize the use and availability of telehealth,” the lawmakers wrote, advocating in particular for the removal of geographic restrictions on care that would allow people to take advantage of telehealth services no matter where they live.

What We’re Reading

HuffPost’s Jeffrey Young gets the play-by-play of an exhausting — and exhaustingly long — day in the life of Anthony Fauci.

Covid-19 vaccine trials have so far excluded pregnant people, leaving unclear when the shots will be deemed safe for those who are pregnant, The 19th’s Shefali Luthra reports.

A San Diego physician already facing charges for selling a false Covid-19 cure has been indicted on new coronavirus-related charges — this time over allegations he tried to illegally import hydroxychloroquine.

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