- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 1, 2009

President Obama has chosen Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius as his nominee for secretary of health and human services - his second try at filling the post - and will make a formal announcement Monday.

Mrs. Sebelius, 60, will leave the governor’s mansion in Topeka midway through her second term if she is confirmed by the Senate. Her nomination comes almost a month after former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle withdrew from consideration for the post because of problems with his taxes.

It had been speculated since Mr. Daschle’s departure that Mrs. Sebelius would be chosen in his stead, but Mr. Obama did not ask her to take the position until Saturday evening.

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A White House official confirmed the choice to The Washington Times. Calls to the governor’s office in Kansas were not returned.

The other top name mentioned as a possible choice for the job was former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, who is a physician. But that idea never seemed to go anywhere, amid speculation that Mr. Dean’s poor relationship with White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel was the biggest obstacle to his nomination.

One of the first indications that Mrs. Sebelius’ nomination was imminent came late Saturday afternoon from Sen. Claire McCaskill, Missouri Democrat, who wrote a short note about the choice on the social-networking site Twitter.com.

“A little anxious about the announcement of HHS Sec.,” Mrs. McCaskill wrote on her Twitter page about 5:22 p.m. “Hopeful that my pal Gov of Kansas will get the call. It should happen today or tomorrow.”

Mrs. Sebelius, a Democrat, is not expected to have the same expansive health-policy role that had been designed for Mr. Daschle, who was set to help drive Mr. Obama’s health care reforms through the Congress while acting as HHS secretary and as head of a newly created White House Office of Health Reform.

Mrs. Sebelius is a former state insurance commissioner with liberal positions on social issues and a fiscal record that has drawn mixed reviews. She also is not the Washington insider that Mr. Daschle is, which means she will not be the help in getting an Obama health care plan through the Senate that Mr. Daschle would have been.

Still, Ron Pollack, executive director of the liberal health care advocacy group Families USA, applauded the Sebelius pick, coming at the end of a week of developments that indicate a major push on the issue this year.

“Together with the president’s speech to Congress, and his big health care investment in the budget, the president’s appointment of Governor Sebelius once again makes clear his intention of achieving meaningful health care reform this year,” he told reporters.

One of the most intense pockets of opposition to her nomination may come from pro-life groups, who object to her consistent vetoes of anti-abortion legislation and to her relationship with an abortionist who is now facing criminal charges on accusations that he violated state restrictions against late-term abortions.

“She is more radical than Tom Daschle on issues such as life,” said Tony Perkins, president of the social conservative Family Research Council. “She will have some tough questions to answer.”

But despite pro-life opposition, Mr. Perkins said her nomination likely would pass the Democratic Senate.

Even apart from Mr. Daschle, Mr. Obama has had trouble filling out his Cabinet. Two nominees for commerce secretary have withdrawn, and Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner faced embarrassing tax questions before being confirmed on the grounds that his position was too important at a time of financial crisis to leave unfilled.

The Kansas governor’s nomination comes at a time of fiscal and political discord in Kansas. She has clashed with Republicans in the state Legislature over her plans to help pay Medicaid providers and for schools by borrowing from state emergency funds, rather than cutting the budget elsewhere.

Mrs. Sebelius said this week that the money from the federal government’s $787 billion economic-stimulus plan has helped fill in the gaps, eliminating the need for cuts or borrowing. The situation was so bad in December, however, that Mrs. Sebelius vowed that she did not want to be considered for a Cabinet post.

“My service to the citizens who elected me is my top priority in these difficult times,” she said then.

But Mrs. Sebelius’ political star has been on the rise for some time.

She led a Democratic surge in Kansas over the past several years and last year gave the Democratic response to President Bush’s final State of the Union speech. And she was considered a top contender to be picked as Mr. Obama’s running mate in the presidential election before the selection of then-Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware.

Her ascension to national politics may slow or reverse the tide of Democratic progress in the state, however. Her successor would be Lt. Gov. Mark Parkinson, a former Republican who has said he does not harbor designs on the governorship in 2010.

That leaves the state’s top post open for Sen. Sam Brownback, the Kansas Republican who has said he plans to run for governor. And in turn, if Mrs. Sebelius were to remain head of HHS through 2010, that would reduce the Kansas Democratic Party’s chances of taking Mr. Brownback’s seat away from the Republicans.

Abortion has been at the center of the battle over whether Mrs. Sebelius, a practicing Catholic, is truly a moderate Democrat.

Dr. George Tiller, the abortionist over whom the governor has come under fire, gave more than $20,000 to Mrs. Sebelius through political campaigns and political action committees before 2001. Mrs. Sebelius held a reception for him at the governor’s mansion in April 2007.

Dr. Tiller also gave $120,000 in 2006 to the Democratic Governors Association, which has given $200,000 to Mrs. Sebelius’s political action committee, the Bluestem Fund. Tiller family members and his Wichita clinic, Women’s Health Care Services, also have contributed to Mrs. Sebelius, Bluestem and/or the association.

Dr. Tiller, who has peformed an estimated 60,000 abortions, is scheduled to go on trial next month on 19 counts of misdemeanor violations of state prohibitions against late-term abortions.

Last May, Kansas City Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann called on Mrs. Sebelius to stop taking Communion because of her “her long-standing support for legalized abortion.”

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