The path to confirmation as U.S. health secretary is expected to
be a smooth one for Burwell, a 48-year-old technocrat who was
nominated on April 11 by President Barack Obama to replace outgoing
Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. Last year,
Burwell sailed through the Senate on a 96-0 vote to become Obama's
Burwell's new confirmation round begins when she takes the hot seat
before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP)
Committee. The Senate Finance Committee, which will decide whether
to send her nomination to the floor, is expected to hold a hearing
at a later date.
Democrats hope to have her confirmation wrapped up by the U.S.
Memorial Day holiday on May 26. Recent events have created a
favorable wind for Burwell's nomination: better-than-expected
Obamacare health plan enrollments, lower-than-expected coverage
costs, slow underlying healthcare inflation and lower government
But she may end up being confirmed without many Republican 'yes'
votes. Republicans see the hearings as perhaps their last chance to
grill a senior Obama official publicly about the Patient Protection
and Affordable Care Act before the November 4 congressional
elections, in which Obamacare will be a central issue.
Republicans, who readily accept Burwell's Harvard and Oxford
credentials, want to know whether she is a dedicated public servant
who avoids the partisan fray or a committed Obama insider determined
to see the president's policies through at any cost.
"She's very pleasant to work with, she's obviously very smart, and
she's obviously very loyal to her boss, which is an admirable
quality ... but it raises the burden of pressure on us in the
confirmation process to be sure to be thorough," said Senator Johnny
Isakson, a Georgia Republican who sits on both confirmation panels.
Burwell has already come under fire from Republican lawmakers who
contend she will have an unstated political role to portray Obama's
signature domestic policy in the most favorable light during this
year's congressional election contest and the 2016 presidential
The law has long been unpopular with large numbers of voters. In
Republican-dominated states with vulnerable Senate Democrats,
popular opposition can range as high as 60 percent, according to
[to top of second column]
The loyalty question goes directly to a Burwell quality that sets
her apart from Sebelius, a Washington outsider who joined the
administration in 2009 after serving as Kansas governor but never
penetrated Obama's inner circle.
A member of the West Wing's top echelon, with long-standing
associations with Treasury Secretary Jack Lew and Obama senior
adviser John Podesta, Burwell as health secretary could wield much
greater influence in dealings with stakeholders. They include health
insurers and state regulators, who could be the key to keeping
Obamacare on an even keel.
"They know that the president really trusts her and that she's been
an insider in White House processes who used to sit at the principal
senior staff table," Podesta told Reuters.
Campaign politics could also figure prominently in questions from
HELP members, including Republican Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, a
possible 2016 presidential candidate, and Democratic Senators Kay
Hagan of North Carolina and Al Franken of Minnesota, who have been
targeted for ouster by the Republican Party.
(Reporting by David Morgan; Editing by Caren Bohan and Dan Grebler)
[© 2014 Thomson Reuters. All rights
Copyright 2014 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published,
broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.