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US Senate confirms Becerra as health secretary, Burns to head CIA

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(FILES) In this file photo William Burns, nominee for Central Intelligence Agency director, testifies during his Senate Select Intelligence Committee confirmation hearing in Russell Senate Office Building on February 24, 2021 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. – The Senate on March 18, 2021, confirmed William Burns to be President Joe Biden’s CIA director, approving his nomination with no objections after Texas GOP Sen. Ted Cruz lifted his hold. The Senate cleared Burns’ nomination by voice vote on the floor. (Photo by Tom WILLIAMS / POOL / AFP)

The Senate on Thursday narrowly confirmed Xavier Becerra, California’s attorney general, to be US secretary of health, the first Latino to head the department now leading the nation’s Covid-19 fight.

The upper chamber also cleared William Burns to be the director of the CIA, putting one of the nation’s most experienced diplomats in charge of the agency.

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Burns, 64, had broad bipartisan support. He was confirmed by a simple voice vote after Republican Senator Ted Cruz lifted a hold on the nomination that he had placed related to Russia’s Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline with Germany.

With Burns greenlighted to head the Central Intelligence Agency, President Joe Biden now has his full complement of top national security personnel in place.

Director of National Intelligence 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 in and outside government.

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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 sprawling agency that oversees the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which issues coronavirus guidelines.

Democrats portrayed Becerra as a health care champion who will improve conditions, coverage, and care for all Americans.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said confirmation “should not have taken this long,” but Republicans sought to derail the nomination from the moment Biden announced his choice.

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He noted how Republicans complained that Becerra has no direct experience as a medical professional, even though they voted to confirm Alex Azar, a pharmaceutical executive who “raised drug prices and tried to undermine our nation’s health law,” as the previous HHS chief.

Republicans also claimed Becerra was too liberal and radical for the job and would seek to strip away private health insurance for millions.

“Becerra has made a career out of promoting far-left priorities like free healthcare for illegal immigrants, open borders & no restrictions on abortion,” Senator Steve Daines tweeted.

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After Becerra’s confirmation, the Senate took up the nomination of Boston Mayor Marty Walsh to head the Department of Labor.

If confirmed, Schumer said, Walsh would be the final cabinet secretary joining Biden’s team.

Two positions with cabinet-level status — director of the Office of Management and Budget, and presidential science advisor — remain to be filled.

Biden had named Neera Tanden, who heads a progressive think tank, to lead the OMB. But Republicans derailed her nomination, the only cabinet casualty so far for the Democratic president.

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