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.
What We're Following See More »
With President Trump back from a trip in which he seemed to undermine European alliances while cozying up to Vladimir Putin, the White House has announced that European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker will visit on July 25. According to a statement, the two "will focus on improving transatlantic trade and forging a stronger economic partnership."
"The House Veterans Affairs Committee has launched an investigation into care at the VA’s 133 nursing homes after learning the agency had given almost half of them the lowest possible score in secret, internal rankings. The probe follows an investigation by The Boston Globe and USA TODAY that showed 60 VA nursing homes ... rated only one out of five stars for quality last year in the agency’s own ranking system." Internal documents revealed that "patients in more than two-thirds of VA nursing homes were more likely to suffer pain and serious bedsores than their private sector counterparts, and that "VA nursing homes scored worse than private nursing homes on a majority of key quality indicators, including rates of anti-psychotic drug prescription and decline in daily living skills."
Colorado Representative Mike Coffman has introduced a bill "that would codify free internet regulations into law" by instituting the "basic outlines of the Federal Communication Commission’s 2015 Open Internet order." Coffman's bill amends the 1934 Telecommunications Act by "banning providers from controlling traffic quality and speed and forbidding them from participating in paid prioritization programs or charging access fees from edge providers." The GOP congressman has also "signed on to a Democrat-led effort to reinstate the net neutrality rules that the FCC voted to repeal late last year."