Pressure intensifies as Biden weighs final Cabinet picks

President-elect Joe Biden is facing significant pressure from competing elements of the Democratic Party to fill remaining Cabinet positions and other senior government posts with minority nominees. The pressure is focused especially on three still-vacant Cabinet roles to run the departments of Defense, Health and Human Services and Justice.  

Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo and former U.S. surgeon general Vivek Murthy are the leading contenders to lead HHS, multiple people familiar with the ongoing deliberations told CBS News.  

Raimondo is the former chair of the Democratic Governors Association, and she was among those under consideration for treasury secretary. But she faced stiff opposition from progressives who’ve sparred with her in the past over a controversial state pension overhaul when she served as state treasurer. Murthy has spent much of this year advising Mr. Biden directly on pandemic-related matters and has been part of briefings that were held at least three times a week during the presidential campaign. 

Latino leaders are especially sensitive to who might lead HHS, given that Latinos have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19 and are experiencing higher infection rates than most demographics. They have been pushing for New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham, a former member of Congress who once served as New Mexico’s health secretary. 

Lujan Grisham was initially approached about serving as interior secretary but declined the role, people familiar with the outreach told CBS News. One person familiar with the governor’s thinking said that she was advised by advisers and friends not to vacate her current perch as the nation’s only Latina governor to take a role for which she has no natural interest or professional experience. 

This person said that the governor is also sensitive to upsetting Native Americans in her state given that Democratic Representative Deb Haaland, also of New Mexico, is being touted for the role and would be the first Native American to run a department that includes the Bureau of Indian Affairs. 

Spokespeople for Raimondo and Lujan Grisham did not respond to requests for comment late Wednesday. 

Mr. Biden’s choice for health secretary and attorney general are set to be among the topics of conversation during a virtual meeting scheduled for Thursday between the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and senior members of the Biden-Harris transition team, including incoming White House Chief of Staff Ronald Klain, according to multiple people familiar with the meeting plans. 

A transition spokesman confirmed that the meeting is occurring and was scheduled several days ago.   

Thirty-two members of the Caucus on Wednesday called on Mr. Biden to nominate either California Attorney General Xavier Becerra or outgoing Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez to serve as attorney general.  

“Each would serve your Administration with courage, integrity, and professionalism, as well as represent a historic appointment,” they wrote in a letter spearheaded by Democratic Representative Filemon Vela, an early supporter of Mr. Biden’s presidential bid.  

The lawmakers noted that Becerra, who served more than 20 years in Congress, currently leads the largest state-level justice department in the country and “has secured dozens of victories against the Trump Justice Department and helped stop the rollback of important healthcare, immigration, labor, environmental, consumer rights, and civil rights protections.” 

Perez’s previous work as labor secretary and as head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division means he’s already been vetted and confirmed by the U.S. Senate twice before “and would draw on his DOJ experience to restore the integrity, independence, and morale of the Department,” the letter said.   

The letter does not note, however, that Perez has led the Democratic Party since 2017, a role that would likely disqualify him with Senate Republicans, who could maintain control of the chamber after Georgia’s two Senate runoff elections on January 5. Becerra has been a chief legal antagonist of President Trump, filing dozens of lawsuits challenging aspects of his administration’s policies ranging from immigration to the environment.   

CBS News has previously reported that several people are under consideration for attorney general, including former deputy attorney general Sally Yates; former Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick, who also once ran the Civil Rights Division; and outgoing Alabama Senator Doug Jones.   

At the Pentagon, CBS News has previously reported that Mr. Biden is considering three leading contenders: Michele Flournoy, a former defense undersecretary for policy; Lloyd Austin, a former four-star Army general; and Jeh Johnson, the former homeland security secretary who also once served as the Defense Department’s top lawyer.  

The Biden team remains wary about nominating sitting Democratic members of Congress for any administration role given the narrow majorities in the House and Senate. Representative Cedric Richmond, a Louisiana Democrat who previously chaired the Congressional Black Caucus and was an early Biden supporter, is already stepping down to head the White House Office of Public Engagement. If Haaland goes too, House Democrats would have an even slimmer majority over Republicans.  

Meanwhile, leaders of major civil rights organizations are also expected to meet soon with Biden-Harris transition aides about ensuring that more Black candidates are considered for senior positions. Transition officials say plans are in the works to schedule a meeting but that no date has been set.    

In addition to hiring Richmond for a senior West Wing role, the Biden-Harris team has tapped Tina Flournoy to serve as Harris’s chief of staff, according to two people familiar with the decision. She previously served as chief of staff to former president Bill Clinton and is set to be one of at least three African American women to hold senior roles on Harris’s team. The others are Symone Sanders, a senior adviser to the Biden campaign, who is set to serve as Harris’s chief spokesperson, and Ashley Etienne, who is poised to serve as communications director. Etienne held a similar role for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.   

Mr. Biden has already nominated Wally Adeyemo to serve as deputy treasury secretary, the first African American in the role. He’s also nominated Cecilia Rouse, a labor economist, to chair the Council of Economic Advisers. She would be the first Black woman to lead the White House economic office.   

When asked about the push by civil rights groups to meet with the transition office, a spokesman said this week that Mr. Biden continues to make history with picks already announced and that his success in building a diverse team “will be clear when our full slate of appointees and nominees is complete.”   

Derrick Johnson, president and CEO of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said Wednesday that civil rights groups are especially eager to speak with top Biden aides in part because the Biden-Harris transition office failed to recruit representatives of any national civil rights organizations to sit on the dozens of agency review teams conducting audits of the federal government during the transition. 

“We are concerned that if we don’t push now to make sure this is a priority, we may have to react at bad stuff as opposed to help construct something that can be positive, forward thinking and inclusive,” Johnson said.  

Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League, said that organizations like his are facing pressure from members nationwide who are “intently following the rollout of these positions.”    

During a meeting this week with members of the Kansas City chapter of the Urban League, Morial said that a participant expressed to him “disappointment with what he had seen already” given that Mr. Biden had not nominated a Black man or woman to run the Homeland Security, State or Treasury departments. 

Morial, who is also the former mayor of New Orleans, dismissed concerns that there are not qualified nominees for senior government positions – or that some minorities might be selected to check the proverbial box.   

“There is abundant talent for every single Cabinet position that’s currently on the board. And just for anyone to suggest that we cannot find anyone I want to wash their mouth out with some Tabasco,” Morial said.  

Rebecca Kaplan and Tim Perry contributed to this report.  

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