Biden’s HHS Secretary Hunt Hits Reset As Candidates Shuffle

Joe Biden’s hunt for a health secretary is poised for a reset after one governor publicly took herself out of the running and another was said to have tested the patience of the president-elect’s advisers.

The Biden camp has also picked Vivek Murthy for surgeon general, a role that would be expanded to include helping to manage the U.S. government response to the coronavirus, according to people familiar with the process.

The flurry of developments Thursday left no apparent front-runner for the position, which will carry particular weight for Biden as he pledges to curb the raging pandemic and smoothly distribute a vaccine.

The top candidates to lead the Department of Health and Human Services were said to have included New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham, Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo and Murthy, a co-chairman of Biden’s coronavirus advisory board.

Lujan Grisham was offered the role of Interior secretary but turned it down and said she was more passionate about leading HHS, a person close to the transition said. The Biden team read that -- paired with the lack of Latina candidates for other cabinet-level posts -- as an effort to force their hand and soured on her candidacy, the person said.

Democratic governors, meanwhile, voted Thursday to elect Lujan Grisham to serve as the new chair of the Democratic Governors Association, though it’s unclear if that closes the door on any cabinet role because she had been vice chair this year and was in line for the position.

The Congressional Hispanic Caucus met virtually with three top Biden advisers -- incoming White House chief of staff Ron Klain and transition co-chairs Ted Kaufman and Jeff Zients -- for a session about their broader hopes for the Biden team. The members offered their support of Grisham for HHS, a person on the call said.

New Mexico Representative Ben Ray Lujan criticized the transition for its leaks around Lujan Grisham and Klain committed to cut down on leaks. The Biden aides conveyed to the CHC members that they want Lujan Grisham, already a transition co-chair, to be part of their team moving forward, the person said.

If confirmed as surgeon general, Murthy would work with Zients, Biden’s apparent choice for Covid-19 coordinator, to steer the federal response to the pandemic, people familiar with the matter said.

A spokesman for the Biden transition declined to comment, as did Lujan Grisham’s office.

Raimondo, meanwhile, announced she didn’t want the job. “I am not going to be President-elect Biden’s nominee for HHS secretary,” Raimondo said during a state coronavirus briefing Thursday, according to WPRI. “My focus is right here in Rhode Island, as I have said. I’m working 24-7 to keep Rhode Islanders safe, and keeping our economy moving, and I have nothing else to add on that topic.”

It’s not clear who else Biden’s team may be considering to be the nation’s top health care official. Murthy’s and Zientz’s possible selections were first reported by Politico.

Biden had aimed to announce his health team as soon as Monday, teeing off a week that will also include a crucial FDA meeting on approval of the first coronavirus vaccines. The president-elect has made the coronavirus response a pillar of his campaign and his transition.

Biden’s transition team was also scheduled to meet remotely on Thursday with Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who said in an MSNBC interview earlier that he planned to remain in his role under the new president.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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