New Obamacare Chief Confirmed With Republican Support

The Senate approved Sylvia Mathews Burwell as the new HHS secretary on Thursday.

WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 08: Director of the White House Office of Management and Budget Sylvia Mathews Burwell waits for the beginning of her confirmation hearing before the Senate Health Committee May 8, 2014 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. If confirmed, Burwell will succeed Kathleen Sebelius to become the next Secretary of Health and Human Services. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
National Journal
Sophie Novack
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Sophie Novack
June 5, 2014, 10:12 a.m.

The chan­ging of the guard at the Health and Hu­man Ser­vices De­part­ment has fin­ished with little to no fire­works.

The Sen­ate voted 78-17 Thursday af­ter­noon to con­firm Sylvia Math­ews Bur­well as the next HHS sec­ret­ary. The fi­nal vote fol­lowed a pro­ced­ur­al vote to end de­bate on her nom­in­a­tion Wed­nes­day, which passed 67-28.

Pres­id­ent Obama an­nounced Bur­well’s nom­in­a­tion nearly two months ago, along with the resig­na­tion of out­go­ing Sec­ret­ary Kath­leen Se­beli­us.

As head of one of the biggest gov­ern­ment agen­cies, and charged with im­ple­ment­ing the still-con­tro­ver­sial Af­ford­able Care Act, the HHS sec­ret­ary holds a highly politi­cized po­s­i­tion. This be­came all the more true fol­low­ing the dis­astrous rol­lout of the fed­er­al en­roll­ment web­site in Oc­to­ber, which had Re­pub­lic­ans call­ing for Se­beli­us’s ter­min­a­tion as early as last fall.

Yet Bur­well’s con­firm­a­tion pro­cess has been sur­pris­ingly smooth. The former Of­fice of Man­age­ment and Budget dir­ect­or has had the sup­port of sev­er­al top Re­pub­lic­an law­makers from the be­gin­ning, in­clud­ing Sens. John Mc­Cain, Tom Coburn, Or­rin Hatch, and Richard Burr. Four­teen Re­pub­lic­ans joined Demo­crats to ad­vance her nom­in­a­tion to a fi­nal vote Wed­nes­day.

A few con­ser­vat­ives, such as Sens. Ted Cruz and Mike Lee, at­temp­ted to hold up her nom­in­a­tion and use the vote as a vehicle to cri­ti­cize Obama­care. But the ef­forts did not gain steam among oth­ers in their party, and new Sen­ate rules re­quir­ing only 51 votes for ap­prov­al gave Bur­well an easy path to con­firm­a­tion.

“No one should mis­read my vote today as an ac­know­ledge­ment that all is well in the world of Obama­care and HHS,” Sen. Hatch said Thursday, ahead of the vote. “[But Bur­well] has ac­know­ledged, for her part, that prob­lems ex­ist, and is com­mit­ted to fix those prob­lems. Un­der this ad­min­is­tra­tion, that’s prob­ably the best we can hope for.” The sen­at­or from Utah said he would do all he can to help the sec­ret­ary in her new role.

Twenty-four Re­pub­lic­ans voted to con­firm her on Thursday, in­clud­ing Hatch, Lamar Al­ex­an­der, John Bar­rasso, Richard Burr, Saxby Cham­b­liss, Dan Coats, Tom Coburn, Susan Collins, Chuck Grass­ley, Rob Port­man, and Pat Toomey.

Both sides have lauded Bur­well’s will­ing­ness to work across the aisle and her ef­fect­ive man­age­ment style as evid­ence of her qual­i­fic­a­tion for the po­s­i­tion — a cru­cial skill that former ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials have said Se­beli­us lacked.

However, the new HHS chief cer­tainly has her work cut out for her. The easy part is over; Bur­well will now have to deal with the con­tin­ued chal­lenges of im­ple­ment­ing the health care law — in­clud­ing on­go­ing tech­nic­al prob­lems, policy changes, polit­ic­al op­pos­i­tion, and loom­ing premi­um rate fil­ings — along with oth­er is­sues that may arise in the de­part­ment. Law­makers hope that her will­ing­ness to work across the aisle will ease some of these po­ten­tial road­b­locks.

Bur­well will be sworn in Monday, ac­cord­ing to an HHS aide.

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