Politics

04.10.14

Kathleen Sebelius Resigning From HHS

It was a rocky tenure from her appointment all the way up to the botched Healthcare.gov rollout. Who is Sylvia Mathews Burwell, her likely successor?

Faster than an error message pops up while vigorously trying to reload healthcare.gov, Kathleen Sebelius is gone from the Department of Health and Human Services.

An HHS official confirmed to The Daily Beast that Sebelius, the long-embattled secretary will announce her resignation on Friday. Sebelius, who has been under withering scrutiny for her role overseeing the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, is expected to be succeeded by Sylvia Mathews Burwell, the chief of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB).

Sebelius’s tenure has been rocky from the start. The former Kansas governor wasn’t Obama’s first choice for the position—that was former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle. Instead, she was only nominated after Daschle was forced to step aside because of tax issues, which presented political obstacles to his confirmation. Since then, Sebelius, who was a popular bipartisan leader in traditionally Republican Kansas, has become a political lightning rod and has taken much of the blame for the initial failures of healthcare.gov. Obama was forced to defend her in an interview with NBC News in November 2013, saying “Kathleen Sebelius doesn’t write code. She wasn’t our IT person.”

Her resignation does come at a high point for Sebelius. Just hours before word of her resignation leaked, she testified on Capitol Hill that 7.5 million Americans had signed up for health insurance on federal exchanges under the Affordable Care Act, a number that exceeds the White House’s goal of 7 million enrollments. In an interview with The Daily Beast, Tom Daschle was full of praise for Sebelius's efforts to implement the highly controversial legislation. "I think Kathleen Sebelius deserves a good deal of credit where we are today," said Daschle. "She provided outstanding leadership." In his opinion, the outgoing HHS Secretary had been "unfairly critcized often for her work and her leadership." 

Senate Republicans will surely use the process to push their message on Obamacare and to get more information about the implementation of the Affordable Care Act from the administration.

Burwell’s nomination signals a shift in the position of HHS Secretary in the Obama administration to more of a bureaucratic, managerial one. The current OMB head is a Robert Rubin protégée who is firmly ensconced in the economic policy establishment of the Democratic Party. After working in the Clinton administration, she worked in nonprofits, first for the Gates Foundation and then running the Walmart Foundation before being nominated to lead OMB in March 2013. 

However, her nomination should not be taken to signal a change in the role of HHS now that the Affordable Care Act is up and running. Daschle, who was President Obama's initial choice to run the Department, thought that the role of HHS Secretary in adminstering and implementing the legislation would remain mostly unchanged.

While the invocation of the “nuclear option” by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid last fall means that Burwell’s confirmation would only require 51 votes and not be subject to a filibuster, it doesn’t mean the process will be easy. Senate Republicans will surely use the process to push their message on Obamacare and to get more information about the implementation of the Affordable Care Act from the administration. Although Burwell was confirmed to head OMB by a vote of 96-0, Daschle cautioned that he thought she wouldn't have an "easy ride." As he noted because Obamacare "is such a contentious issue that will be reflected in the hearings." However, Daschle remained very optimistic about her prospects of confirmation, saying that Burwell was "fully capable of addressing the questions and instilling a level of confidence that she’s the right person to address challenges and responsibilties that come with the job."

Republicans seem to possess an open mind on the nomination and the initial reaction seems to bear out Daschle's hope that Burwell's nomination would provide an opportunity for the current OMB director "to build bridges and continue to find ways to reduce the partisanship. In a statement to The Daily Beast, Sen. Lamar Alexander, (R-TN), the ranking member of the Senate HELP Committee, which would conduct the nominations, welcomed Sebelius’s resignation. “This is the right decision,” said the two-term senator. “The challenge for Ms. Burwell, or any other successor, is to help Congress find the right way to repair the damage Obamacare has done to American families.” This was echoed in a release from GOP stalwart Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) who said "the next secretary might have a fresh start with the public and Congress but the flawed law is still the law.” One Republican senator seems to have already come out in favor of the nomination, John McCain tweeted Thursday night that "Sylvia Burwell is an excellent choice to be the next #HHS Secretary."

Burwell's nomination is expected to be officially announced at 11AM on Friday morning news conference in the White House Rose Garden.