Sunday, February 8, 2009

UPDATED:

Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius is near the top of President Obama’s list of candidates to head the Health and Human Services Department at least partially on the strength of her long and close working relationship with the president, a senior administration official said.

Other candidates, including former Clinton White House Chief of Staff John Podesta, remain in the mix. A decision is not imminent, a senior administration official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss private administration deliberations.

Mrs. Sebelius, 60, signed on early with the Obama campaign, backing his candidacy over that of Hillary Rodham Clinton, Obama’s rival for the Democratic nomination and now secretary of state. Mrs. Sebelius worked tirelessly for Mr. Obama’s bid and was a top surrogate to women’s groups, especially after Republicans picked Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as their vice presidential nominee.

Advocacy groups like the consumer-watchdog role Mrs. Sebelius played as insurance commissioner for eight years before she became governor.



A Kansas Democrat close to Mrs. Sebelius said she had not spoken about the post in recent days but appeared to remain a strong contender. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not officially authorized to speak for the governor.

White House spokesman Reid Cherlin said Saturday no decision had been made.

Mrs. Sebelius would be Mr. Obama’s second choice for the slot. Former Sen. Tom Daschle had to withdraw his name amid an admission he had not paid all his taxes, including on a car and driver, since leaving Congress as a Democratic leader.

The loss of Mr. Daschle has many worried about the fate of any quick action on health-care reform, one of Mr. Obama’s top early priorities and a complex legislative effort that seemed to require the heft of someone like Mr. Daschle to push it through. As a result, most believed Mr. Obama needed to move quickly to replace Mr. Daschle, and yet the White House was so committed to that pick that it had little in the way of a backup list when he dropped out.

It took Mr. Obama almost a month to find a new commerce secretary nominee when his first pick dropped out. He named Republican Sen. Judd Gregg last week, the same day Mr. Daschle withdrew, to replace New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who had stepped aside for the post in early January amid a grand jury investigation into a state contract awarded to his political donors.

Mrs. Sebelius’ name had been floated for several Cabinet posts right after Mr. Obama won in November, but she announced in early December that she had removed herself from consideration for a Washington job, citing Kansas’ budget problems that needed her attention.

The two-term governor remains popular in her state and comes from a strong political family. Her father, John Gilligan, was a Democratic governor of Ohio in the early 1970s, and her late father-in-law, Keith Sebelius, was a Republican congressman from Kansas for 12 years.

Mrs. Sebelius was in Washington last week to give a pair of speeches, one on clean energy jobs and the other at the National Education Association. She also met at the Ritz Carlton hotel with Obama aide Valerie Jarrett, one of the president’s top advisers and confidantes.

Mrs. Sebelius’ trip was planned before Mr. Daschle bowed out as nominee for health secretary as a result of fallout from about $140,000 in back taxes and interest he paid last month.

Those close to the White House also mentioned Mr. Podesta as a candidate. The leader of Mr. Obama’s transition team and head of the liberal think tank Center for American Progress, he was the fourth and final chief of staff to serve President Clinton.

Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen was another candidate, although some advocacy groups were lining up to oppose the Democratic governor. He remains under consideration but was not as likely as Mrs. Sebelius to make the final cut, the senior official said.

Associated Press writer John Hanna in Topeka, Kan., contributed to this article.

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