- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 13, 2014

Lawmakers dug in Sunday for a proxy war over the new health care law, now that President Obama has selected a well-known manager to replace Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and lead his signature program into a new era.

Mr. Obama says his budget chief, Sylvia Mathews Burwell, is a “proven manager” who will lead HHS with distinction and build on whatever momentum the White House gained by signing up 7.5 million Americans in private health coverage from October to March.

But Sen. Tim Scott, South Carolina Republican and member of the Senate Finance Committee that will vet Mrs. Burwell, said he wants to know whether HHS will put Americans first, or if it considers “the administration’s policies and trying to carry the water for the president as their primary responsibility.”

Mrs. Burwell was confirmed as director of the Office of Management and Budget, 96-0, but her bid to replace Mrs. Sebelius will face tighter scrutiny, as Republicans insist the Affordable Care Act will cause insurance premiums to rise and kill jobs.

“There’s no doubt that she was a good choice for OMB. That does not necessarily make her a good choice for HHS,” Mr. Scott told “Fox News Sunday.” “The real question that we have to dig into is how Obamacare and the role of the secretary of HHS — how they have been woven together and what it looks like for the American people.”

Mrs. Sebelius had the unfortunate distinction of serving as the face of Obamacare’s rocky debut in October. When HealthCare.gov — the federal exchange website that served three dozen states — crashed upon its launch, many called on Mr. Obama to fire the secretary.

He stood by her as a team of tech experts fixed the website, but the rocky rollout had taken its toll and will be the centerpiece of Republican attacks on vulnerable Senate Democrats up for re-election in November.

Analysts and lawmakers said Mrs. Sebelius’ decision to resign — a shock announcement last week — came at a sort of sweet spot for the administration. Firing her during HealthCare.gov’s darkest days might have sent the wrong message or disrupted the fix-it campaign, and her decision to leave by May comes during a lull between open-enrollment periods.

It’s also arrived at a relative high point for the law. The White House is cheering millions of enrollments in the federal and state health exchanges, a victory lap before insurance companies say whether a lack of young, healthy enrollees will cause premiums to soar.

“Under Kathleen’s leadership, her team at HHS turned the corner, got it fixed, got the job done, and the final score speaks for itself,” Mr. Obama said Friday in the White House’s Rose Garden.

Mrs. Sebelius said she did not give Mr. Obama a choice when she signaled in early March she would be leaving at the close of open enrollment.

“I made it pretty clear that that really wasn’t an option, to stay on,” Mrs. Sebelius told NBC’s Andrea Mitchell in an interview aired Sunday. “I mean, I thought it was fair to either commit till January of 2017 or leave with enough time that he would get a strong, competent leader.”

Mr. Obama is betting on Mrs. Burwell to be that leader. If confirmed, she will oversee an agency responsible not only for Mr. Obama’s health overhaul, but for a huge share of federal spending through Medicare for seniors and Medicaid for low-income Americans.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, said Friday he hopes his Republican colleagues will work in a bipartisan fashion to confirm Mrs. Burwell without “unnecessary obstruction and delay.”

His conference should have an easy time approving the president’s choice, anyway, now that it has employed the “nuclear option” and can approve nominees on a majority vote without having to overcome the 60-vote threshold to avoid Republican filibusters.

Nonetheless, Republican lawmakers are seizing the opportunity to blast Obamacare.

Rep. Marsha Blackburn, Tennessee Republican and outspoken Obamacare critic, said the law is not actuarially sound, so they needed a budget guru “to kind of spin the numbers.”

“And this is something, with Burwell coming from OMB, I think they’re expecting her to be able to do for them,” she told CBS’s “Face the Nation.”

Democrats in safe seats signaled they are ready for a conversation on Obamacare, arguing Mrs. Sebelius is leaving on a high note and that even better days are ahead.

“She was there nearly six years in an extremely tough job, at a very consequential time, through the whole health care bill, through the rollout, with all its malfunctions,” Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, Rhode Island Democrat, told Fox. “I think it probably is a good thing to have a new face going forward, and Sylvia Mathews Burwell is a very good choice. She has a lot of good will on the Republican side, and she has a lot of experience and ability.”

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