WILMINGTON, Del. (Reuters) - President-elect Joe Biden on Tuesday laid out his plan to fight the coronavirus pandemic during his first 100 days in office, saying his administration would vaccinate 100 million Americans, push to reopen schools and strengthen mask mandates.
Biden, who formally introduced his public health team on Tuesday, also announced he would nominate retired Army General Lloyd Austin as the country’s first Black defense secretary.
He also picked U.S. Representative Marcia Fudge of Ohio to lead the Housing and Urban Development Department, and Tom Vilsack, the former agriculture secretary, to fill the same role again, according to news reports on Tuesday.
At a briefing in Wilmington, Delaware, Biden said he needed Congress to fully fund delivering vaccines to all corners of the United States. Getting children back to school will be a national priority in the first 100 days, Biden said.
“In 100 days, we can change the course of the disease and change life in America for the better,” said Biden, who takes office on Jan. 20. “Whatever your politics or point of view, mask up for 100 days.”
Biden’s first few months will likely be dominated by the pandemic, which is straining hospitals amid a nationwide resurgence.
The coronavirus has killed more than 283,000 Americans and caused millions to lose their jobs.
Effective vaccines would help the Biden administration turn its focus to healing the ailing U.S. economy. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration released documents on Tuesday raising no new issues about the safety or efficacy of Pfizer Inc’s vaccine, which could receive emergency authorization this month. [nL1N2IO0Z6]
Biden introduced California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, a Latino former congressman, as his nominee for secretary of health and human services. Becerra has a long record of supporting the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare.
PUSHBACK ON PENTAGON PICK
Biden picked Austin as defense secretary nominee, despite pushback from some Democrats in Congress unhappy with the idea of a former military man running the Pentagon.
“The fact is, Austin’s many strengths and his intimate knowledge of the Department of Defense and our government are uniquely matched to the challenges and crises we face,” Biden wrote in The Atlantic magazine. “He is the person we need in this moment.”
The confirmation of Austin, 67, who oversaw U.S. forces in the Middle East under former President Barack Obama, would require Congress to approve a waiver because he has been out of the military fewer than the seven years mandated by a law designed to ensure civilian oversight of the armed forces.
Outgoing President Donald Trump’s first defense secretary, former Marine General Jim Mattis, also needed a waiver.
At least two Democratic senators, Richard Blumenthal and Jon Tester, expressed opposition to waiving the law, casting doubt on whether Austin’s nomination will pass a closely divided Senate.
Fudge will be Biden’s housing and urban development secretary, Politico and Bloomberg News reported, citing unnamed sources. If confirmed, Fudge would face a housing crisis stemming from the pandemic, which has seen millions of people miss rent and mortgage payments because of business shutdowns.
Biden has asked Vilsack, who was agriculture secretary during the Obama administration, to return to the position, Axios reported. Vilsack campaigned for Biden in Iowa, where he was governor for two terms, and served as an agricultural policy adviser.
The transition team did not immediately comment on the Fudge and Vilsack reports. Earlier on Tuesday, Fudge told reporters she would be honored, but did not confirm she would be nominated.
The nominations of Austin and Fudge, who is also Black, add to Biden’s effort to assemble a Cabinet and administration that reflect the country’s diversity. Earlier on Tuesday, Biden met for nearly two hours with leaders of seven leading civil rights organizations who have pressed Biden to select more people of color as his top advisers.
Biden won the White House in large part because of support from the nation’s Black community, and the president-elect has made addressing civil rights one of the main pillars of his administration, promising to expand support for Black-owned businesses and reform the justice system.
The Rev. Al Sharpton, head of the National Action Network, said he again told Biden to nominate a Black attorney general.
“The least we could have is someone with a proven civil rights background,” Sharpton said.
Trump has refused to concede his Nov. 3 election defeat, citing unsubstantiated claims of widespread voter fraud. On Tuesday, Texas filed a lawsuit asking the U.S. Supreme Court to throw out the results in four other states in a long-shot bid to reverse the election’s outcome.
The Trump campaign and allies have filed numerous lawsuits challenging vote counts in multiple states, with little success. State officials have said there is no evidence of widespread fraud.
Reporting by Simon Lewis in Delaware and Jarrett Renshaw in Philadelphia; Additional reporting by Phil Stewart, Makini Brice, Doina Chiacu, Jason Lange and Patricia Zengerle; writing by Joseph Ax and Grant McCool; Editing by Ross Colvin, Jonathan Oatis and Peter Cooney
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