Senate Expected To Approve Sebelius Replacement At HHS

The Senate votes Thursday on the nomination of Sylvia Mathews Burwell to be Health and Human Services Secretary, replacing Kathleen Sebelius. Burwell was running the Office of Management and Budget.

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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm David Greene.

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And I'm Steve Inskeep. It's confirmation day for President Obama's pick as the Head of Department of Health and Human Services. Sylvia Mathews Burwell, who's been running the White House Office of Management and Budget up till now, is expected to win easy approval in the Senate.

She will replace Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, who has been a target of Republicans opposed to the Affordable Care Act. None of the controversy that followed Sebelius was a problem for Burwell in the Senate - and that is true even though this is an election year. Here's NPR national political correspondent, Don Gonyea.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: Sylvia Mathews Burwell, an Obama appointee, got a bipartisan show of support yesterday when the Senate cleared the way for a final vote on her nomination. That follows a pair of recent hearings where even Republican senators heaped praise upon the person who will now oversee the Affordable Care Act - Obamacare. There was Tom Coburn from Oklahoma.

SENATOR TOM COBURN: The first is - she's competent.

GONYEA: Coburn spoke of her character and how easy she's been to work with in her role as White House budget director.

COBURN: Even when she has her mind made up, she will listen to another point of view to gain information that she might not have. And that's a characteristic, too often, that we don't see as members of Congress and members of the administration whether they're Republican or Democrat.

GONYEA: Then there was Senator John McCain of Arizona who said he advised Burwell against taking what he calls the most thankless job in Washington.

SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN: After all, who would recommend their friend take over as captain of the Titanic after it hit the iceberg? She ignored my advice and accepted the nomination anyway, continuing her pattern of public service.

GONYEA: ...And Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah.

SENATOR ORRIN HATCH: Naturally, I wish you the best of luck as you work to address these challenges. You're going to need all the luck you can get. But I'm grateful to people like you who are willing to take on these tough responsibilities. We're grateful that you're willing to serve.

GONYEA: Hatch talked about past frustration when trying to get information from Secretary Sebelius during her tenure. Burwell's response...

SYLVIA MATHEWS BURWELL: I hope that you would pick up the phone and call me. If we can have conversations, and those conversations can be specific, I think that's something that we can work to figure most things out - even at times when we may not agree.

GONYEA: Robert Blendon, a health policy analyst, at Harvard University's Kennedy school says there's a reason that Burwell's confirmation has gone so smoothly, even in this election year.

ROBERT BLENDON: I think people who even are opposed to the law felt that she was a super manager, finance person. And this was not a place to draw a line about what should happen to the Affordable Care Act.

GONYEA: He said Burwell is not seen as someone who's going to engage in political battles over the law that many Republicans still want to repeal. But, Blendon says, don't mistake lack of drama surrounding Burwell as a sign that the politics of Obamacare have cooled off.

BLENDON: The issue is not over electorally. This will be an important issue in this election.

GONYEA: And the key fights will be taking place in those states where control of the U.S. Senate will be determined - places where seats held by Democrats are vulnerable.

BLENDON: So we're going to see this play out. It'll be seen in the advertisements and the speeches and the debates. And this election will be very important for the future of the legislation.

GONYEA: And, Blendon says, it'll continue into the 2016 presidential campaign in a big way as well. And when some future HHS secretary faces confirmation - say, in 2017 - those hearings may not be as cordial as the ones Sylvia Mathews Burwell just went through. Don Gonyea, NPR News, Washington.

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