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President Obama's choice to head the vast Department of Health and Human Services appeared today before the first of two Senate committees. Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius didn't get quite as warm a reception as the president's original pick for the job, former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle.
But as NPR's Julie Rovner reports, the questioning did provide a preview of the looming fight over reshaping the nation's health care system.
JULIE ROVNER: Sebelius is no amateur when it comes to health care. She was her state's insurance commissioner before becoming governor and a state legislator before that. And in her first public appearance since being nominated, she made it clear she shares President Obama's goal of getting a health overhaul bill enacted this year.
Governor KATHLEEN SEBELIUS (Democrat, Kansas): As he says, health care reform cannot wait, it must not wait, it will not wait another year. Inaction is not an option.
ROVNER: Today's hearing was before the Health Education Labor and Pensions Committee, which overseas public health agencies like the Food and Drug Administration. It doesn't actually get to vote on Sebelius' nomination. That responsibility belongs to the Senate Finance Committee. But that didn't stop Republicans on the HELP Committee from challenging the secretary-designate.
Wyoming's Mike Enzi, the panel's top Republican, wanted Sebelius to promise the administration wouldn't use a budget shortcut known as reconciliation, designed to effectively cut Republicans out of the process, to try to push through its health bill.
Senator MIKE ENZI (Republican, Wyoming): I'm afraid that if that reconciliation winds up in the budget bill, it'll be like a declaration of war or hopefully not quite that drastic.
ROVNER: Sebelius said the administration wasn't prepared to take anything off the table quite yet, but she said she wants the process to be bipartisan, and she knows what that means.
Gov. SEBELIUS: I am a Democrat in a state where the majority of voters are Republicans. The vast majority of our legislature are Republicans, and yet time and time again, I have found ways to work across party lines and get things done.
ROVNER: But Sebelius was also ready to stand up to Republicans, and she did when challenged by Senator John McCain, the man who wanted to appoint the next HHS secretary.
Senator JOHN McCAIN (Republican, Arizona): A lot of people view the - some of the proposals by the administration as a government-run health plan. Do you support the creation of a government-run health insurance plan?
ROVNER: Sebelius balked at McCain's characterization of the key dispute in the ongoing health debate. At issue was whether there should be a Medicare-like public plan that the uninsured under age 65 could join. But she didn't hesitate to champion what the president and most Democrats want.
Gov. SEBELIUS: If the question is do I support a public option side by side with private insurers in a health insurance exchange, yes, I do.
ROVNER: Late today, word emerged that Sebelius and her husband recently paid several thousand dollars in back taxes, but the tax problems are said to be so minor as to not threaten her nomination.
Julie Rovner, NPR News, Washington.
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