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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Now let's get back to the issue that was at the heart of the government shutdown - Republican efforts to repeal or at least discredit the Affordable Care Act. Having failed to defund Obamacare, there's now a movement underway to oust Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. But what's unexpected is that effort is being led by a senator from her home state with whom she has long had close family and professional ties. NPR national political correspondent Don Gonyea reports.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: This is a story about two friends from the state of Kansas. Democrat Kathleen Sebelius was a two-term governor who came to Washington at the start of the Obama administration. When she did so, no one seemed prouder than now three-term Republican Senator Pat Roberts, who spoke at her confirmation hearing in 2009.

SENATOR PAT ROBERTS: Well, Governor Sebelius, welcome. It is a special and great opportunity for Kansas to be represented as a member - a Kansan to be represented as a member of the president's cabinet.

GONYEA: Roberts described their, quote, special relationship going back decades. But now, four plus years later, his tone has changed.

ROBERTS: Enough is enough.

GONYEA: That's Senator Roberts in a YouTube video one week ago. He was reacting to the troubled rollout and technical problems people have encountered while trying to sign up online for healthcare exchanges.

ROBERTS: Today I am calling on Kathleen Sebelius to resign her post as secretary of Health and Human Services. Secretary Sebelius has had three and a half years to launch Obamacare and she has failed.

GONYEA: Now, it's hardly news that a Republican member of the Senate is criticizing a cabinet official from the Obama administration. What's interesting here is that Roberts is showing such animosity towards someone with whom he's had such a close relationship, one that goes way back before either held public office, according to University of Kansas political scientist Burdett Loomis.

BURDETT LOOMIS: I think there is this combination of the personal and the political. Pat Roberts began his political career working for Keith Sebelius, congressman from Western Kansas. He subsequently seceded Keith Sebelius in that job.

GONYEA: And Keith Sebelius, a Republican, is the father-in-law of Democrat Kathleen Sebelius. As office holders, Loomis says Kathleen Sebelius and Pat Roberts have long worked well together, but he also notes that as Kansas has become a reliably red state, its Republican Party has gotten much more conservative.

He adds that Obamacare is extremely unpopular there, so there's plenty of motivation for Senator Roberts to distance himself and even lead the effort against an old friend.

LOOMIS: He's moving with the times. He's doing what savvy politicians do. And I think that as he approaches this next term, he'll be 78 when he runs for reelection, I think that he doesn't want to have any impediments in his way.

GONYEA: Roberts does have a primary opponent in 2014, a Tea Party candidate named Milton Wolf, who happens to be a second cousin to President Obama. Obama's mother's family lived in Kansas. The challenger is considered a long shot, but Professor Loomis says Roberts appears to be taking no chances in the wake of Tea Party defeats of other veteran Republican senators, such as Richard Luger of Indiana.

Secretary Sebelius, meanwhile, has not responded to Roberts. She was in Cincinnati this week where she acknowledged this...

SECRETARY KATHLEEN SEBELIUS: Now, I'll be the first to tell you that the website launch was rockier than we would have liked. Lots and lots of lots of interest and difficulty getting people on the site and getting them to the plans.

GONYEA: She got a strong vote of support this week from the White House. Adding to her job security? Nominating a new Health and Human Services secretary would mean another confirmation hearing, opening another avenue for Republicans to attack the healthcare law. It would also be a hearing absent the kind bipartisan words Senator Roberts once had for his fellow Kansan. Don Gonyea, NPR News, Washington.

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