HHS secretary-designate makes her Senate debut

SECOND CHOICE:: Kathleen Sebelius, the US president’s choice to head the Health and Human Services Department, was expected to receive a warm welcome


Wed, Apr 01, 2009 - Page 7

US President Barack Obama’s second choice for Health and Human Services (HHS) secretary is getting ready to make her Senate debut.

Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius was expected to get a friendly reception from the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee yesterday. It was unclear whether the committee chairman, Senator Edward Kennedy, who’s been battling brain cancer, would preside.

Sebelius’ appearance comes nearly two months after Obama’s first choice for HHS secretary, former Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle, withdrew from consideration while apologizing for failing to pay US$140,000 in taxes and interest.

In that time, some battle lines have been drawn over Obama’s push to overhaul the US healthcare system to cover 48 million uninsured Americans.

Daschle was supposed to lead that effort as HHS secretary and head of the White House Office for Health Reform. When he dropped out of consideration the job was split up and a separate White House health czar was named.

Sebelius would still play a major role in health legislation efforts and can expect senators to seek her views. Her background on healthcare includes blocking an insurance company merger in Kansas while insurance commissioner in 2001.

Sebelius, 60, a Democrat, used that victory as a central component in her campaign for governor the next year, casting herself as a staunch consumer advocate.

The health committee won’t actually vote on sending Sebelius’ nomination to the full Senate. That job falls to the Senate Finance Committee, which will hold Sebelius’ confirmation hearing tomorrow.

Oregon Democratic Senator Ron Wyden, a Finance Committee member, said Sebelius faces “a two-part drill” and predicted “a very positive reaction in both committees and rapid confirmation.”

“I don’t see any show-stopper issues on the horizon,” Wyden said.

Wyden said he expected Sebelius to face questions about her views on abortion. Anti-abortion groups are strongly opposed to Sebelius, a Roman Catholic who supports abortion rights. She vetoed several bills in Kansas to impose new restrictions on abortion providers or regulations on clinics. Just on Friday, though, she signed legislation that ensures that women and girls seeking abortions are allowed to see ultrasound images or hear their fetus’ heartbeat before the procedure.

“My sense is she has strong personal views, but has worked hard to make abortion as rare as possible,” Wyden said.