Congress moved a step closer Tuesday to filling a critical vacancy in President Obama's Cabinet when a Senate committee approved the nomination of Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius to head the Department of Health and Human Services.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, Montana Democrat, said he would press for a speedy confirmation for Mrs. Sebelius before the full Senate, although several Republicans are determined to block the vote.
"I congratulate Governor Sebelius and will push for immediate action by the full Senate so that she can finally roll up her sleeves and get down to helping out on this critical work of reforming the health care system," Mr. Baucus said.
Senate Finance Committee voted 15-8 to send Mrs. Sebelius' nomination to the full Senate for a final confirmation vote. No Democrats voted to reject her confirmation, while two Republicans - Sens. Olympia J. Snowe of Maine and Pat Roberts of Kansas - voted "yes."
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, is expected to schedule a confirmation vote for later this week, a senior Democratic Senate aide said.
Mrs. Sebelius' nomination was praised by health care advocates and derided by conservative and Christian groups, who reject the governor's pro-choice stance.
"There's no governor in the country that knows as much about health care as she does," said Ron Pollack, executive director of the liberal health care advocacy group Families USA. "I think she's going to be a good secretary."
But Tony Perkins, president of the conservative Family Research Council, pressed the Senate to reject Mrs. Sebelius' nomination.
"The divided committee vote on Governor Sebelius' nomination reflects growing grass-roots opposition," Mr. Perkins said. "We urge the U.S. Senate to truly set a new tone in Washington, stop playing politics and stand up for integrity by rejecting her nomination."
Mrs. Sebelius' confirmation is far from certain because some Republican senators say they are uncomfortable with inaccuracies in her response to the Finance Committee about how much campaign money she received from Dr. George Tiller, a Wichita, Kan.-based doctor who performs abortions. He is under investigation by Kansas' medical board regarding late-term procedures.
The governor told the committee in statements after her confirmation hearing this month that Dr. Tiller had given her $12,450 between 1994 and 2001. She later amended that response after the Associated Press revealed that the doctor and his abortion clinic donated and additional $23,000 between 2000 and 2002 to a political action committee she created to raise money for fellow Democrats. Mrs. Sebelius apologized and called it an oversight.
Committee member Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, Utah Republican, said that while initially he considered Mrs. Sebelius a worthy candidate, he now has doubts.
"My strong beliefs in the sanctity of life simply made it impossible for me to support Governor Sebelius' nomination," he said.
Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl, Arizona Republican and a Finance Committee member, said he voted against the Sebelius nomination because of her support of comparative effectiveness research - a federal program that sifts through millions of patient medical records to determine which medicines and treatments work best. The information then is made available to doctors and patients.
Many Republicans worry that comparative effectiveness research could be used to deny patients certain medical procedures or medicine.
"I believe in the right of every American to choose the doctor, hospital and health plan of his or her choice," Mr. Kyl said. "No Washington bureaucrat should interfere with that right."