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Sebelius Has History Of Bridging Partisan Divide

Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, shown at a "Women For Obama" town hall meeting last August in Warren, Mich., is the president's pick to lead health and human services. Bill Pugliano/Getty Images hide caption

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Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, shown at a "Women For Obama" town hall meeting last August in Warren, Mich., is the president's pick to lead health and human services.

Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

In tapping Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius for the role of secretary of health and human services, President Obama has selected a Democrat who has been able to work across party lines and maintain high approval ratings in an overwhelmingly Republican state.

In 2006, when she ran for re-election, Sebelius picked the former chairman of the state Republican Party, Mark Parkinson, to be her running mate. She won with 58 percent of the vote, the best showing by a Democratic governor of Kansas since 1972.

The ties between Obama and Sebelius are strong. She endorsed his presidential candidacy in January 2008, one day after she delivered the Democratic response to President Bush's final State of the Union address. A week later, Obama swept the Kansas Democratic caucuses by a landslide. For much of the spring and summer, as Obama marched toward the Democratic nomination, Sebelius was thought to have been on his short list for vice president.

Sebelius is Obama's second choice for the Cabinet post. His first, former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, was forced to withdraw over his failure to pay $128,000 in taxes until he was nominated.

As HHS secretary, Sebelius will lead the charge on Obama's promised overhaul of the health care system. That's likely to become a top priority for the administration, now that the president's economic stimulus program has cleared Congress and been signed into law.

Sebelius has earned good reviews for her handling of the state's Medicaid program, a record that started when she was state insurance commissioner. She cracked down on HMOs that denied care to Kansas citizens and pushed for expanded access to prescription drugs. She took on Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Kansas and blocked its efforts to raise premiums. She proposed a national bill of rights for patients, and while that didn't succeed, she was widely recognized for her efforts. Governing magazine named her in 2001 as one of the top public officials of the year.

Sebelius continued that focus after she was elected governor in 2002. In her first year, she pushed for an increase in cigarette taxes as a way to pay for expanded health care coverage. In 2005, Time magazine named her as one of the nation's top five governors. The magazine cited her "bipartisan credentials" and her ability to balance the state budget — after being faced with a $1.1 billion debt — in her first year in office "without raising taxes or cutting funds for education."

Sebelius may be relatively new to the national spotlight, but she's hardly new to politics. Her father, John Gilligan, served as governor of Ohio in the early 1970s. Her husband, Gary Sebelius, is a federal magistrate judge and son of a former Republican representative from Kansas, Keith Sebelius.

Sebelius moved to Kansas in the mid-1970s, winning a seat in the state House of Representatives in 1986. She was elected state insurance commissioner in 1994 and re-elected four years later.

In 2002, as ideological factionalism was hurting the state GOP, Sebelius was elected to the first of her two terms as governor. She is constitutionally ineligible to seek a third term next year.

Her name had been mentioned as a possible candidate for the Senate in 2010 for the seat being given up by Republican Sam Brownback.