Sylvia Mathews Burwell, President Obama’s pick to be the new Health and Human Services secretary, survived her first round of grilling Thursday on Capitol Hill, staving off GOP lawmakers’ concerns about the health of Obamacare and vowing to help states that want to expand their Medicaid programs on their own terms.
Mrs. Burwell enjoyed unanimous support last year for her confirmation as White House budget chief, but her nomination to succeed Kathleen Sebelius at HHS promises to be a tougher battle. The health overhaul’s wobbly rollout is a linchpin of the GOP’s efforts to retake the Senate in mid-term elections this November and push back against Mr. Obama’s agenda in the final two years of his term.
With that backdrop, GOP senators on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee toggled between respect for Mrs. Burwell’s resume and the tall task before her, from overseeing Obamacare to managing a massive share of federal spending.
“Ms. Burwell, you have a reputation for competence. And I would respectfully suggest you’re going to need it because if you’re confirmed, you by yourself supervise the spending of nearly a trillion dollars a year,” Ranking Member Lamar Alexander, Tennessee Republican, told her.
But the first of her confirmation hearings — the powerful Senate Finance Committee will vet her as well — offered few of the fireworks that marked congressional Republicans’ battles with Kathleen. Sebelius, who announced last month she will resign as secretary of HHS once her successor is confirmed.
Instead, Mrs. Burwell’s testimony seemed tailored to satisfy each senator without creating the type of headlines that could come back to haunt the administration and its Democratic allies. She reaffirmed that the law’s web rollout was “unacceptable,” and said she would like to grant states some flexibility in how they expand Medicaid, an option for states under the health law, so long as it does not sacrifice benefits.
Trying to quash concerns from Republican Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas, Mrs. Burwell said she did not think the law’s Independent Payment Advisory Board — termed “death panels” by critics — will be needed to address Medicare costs, nor did she view the overhaul as a back-door conduit for single-payer, government-run health care, a goal among more liberal members of Congress.
“If I am confirmed, I will implement the law,” she said, noting Mr. Obama’s reforms offer commercial insurance on state-based exchanges.
Despite her assurances, Republican committee members issued a warning to Mrs. Burwell — as the new face of Obamacare, you are taking the helm of a sinking ship.
“That is why I advised her against taking the leadership position at HHS,” Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, said. “After all, who would recommend their friend take over as captain of the Titanic after it hit the iceberg? Obviously, she ignored my advice and accepted the nomination anyway, continuing her pattern of public service.”