President Barack Obama's
pick to be the nation's new health secretary faced some pointed questions Wednesday over the healthcare law, but she also won praise as Republican senators largely passed up the chance for an all-out assault on "Obamacare."Sylvia Mathews Burwell
, the White House budget director, pledged under questioning from Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) to try to recoup any federal taxpayer dollars that have been misused on failed health law sign-up websites in states including Maryland and Oregon.
She defended the administration's record of making unilateral changes to the Affordable Care Act
, such as delaying the requirement for employers to offer health coverage or pay fines. "What was intended was trying to implement the law in a better way that's common sense," Burwell said.
Burwell, 48, got largely cordial treatment during an appearance before the Senate Finance Committee, just as occurred last week before the Senate's health committee—defying predictions that her nomination hearings would turn into an election-year trial of Obamacare.
The full Senate could vote on her nomination as early as this month and there is little doubt she will be confirmed.
Burwell was approved for her current post 96-0 by the Senate last year. She was seen as a safe choice by Obama not least because of her popularity on both sides of the aisle.
Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) introduced Burwell to the committee and was effusive, calling her "remarkably responsible" and "a great listener."
But Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), warned that she would have to work to develop good relations with Congress following frustration with the person she would replace, Kathleen Sebelius
, seen by lawmakers as unresponsive to their questions.
"We can be very cordial today, but if you want to change the relationship your department has with Congress, you're going to have to be willing to break the 'by any means necessary' mindset the department has had for the past five years," Grassley said.
The large hearing room was less than half full, which Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) said was evidence that Burwell's nomination was widely supported.
It also pointed to a larger dynamic in Congress, where Republican attacks on Obamacare have receded somewhat in recent weeks in the wake of sign-up numbers that were better than expected.
House Republicans have not recently scheduled a vote to repeal the health law, even while insisting they remain committed to doing so after more than 50 votes to repeal or dismember it. Other issues including the investigation into the attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya, have taken center stage instead.