A move by Senate Republicans to block a fast-track effort to confirm Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius as the nations top healthcare official likely wont affect the effort to enact healthcare reform this year. But the action nevertheless raised the ire of lawmakers and the reform community who want to see the HHS post filled.
Sebelius on hold
GOP, Dems disagree on fast-tracking efforts
Although the delay is not expected to derail her confirmation, it does mean a mounting health reform effort will be without an agency leader for at least the next several weeks, and perhaps longer. Congressional rules require that a committee post notice 48 hours before a nominees name can be voted on by the full Senate. This requirement, however, can be waived if all senators agree to the vote, a process known as unanimous consent. But, this also allows just one senator to stop the process.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.), who wanted to have the confirmation vote on April 2, said that one senator had held up the process, though he declined to say who it was. He called the delay unfortunate. The administration needs its people in place, Baucus said. Shes going to get confirmed.
A spokeswoman for the Service Employees International Union, which has been a big part of an effort to reshape the U.S. healthcare system, agreed, calling the slowdown insulting to all families and small business who are being crushed by the weight of out-of-control healthcare costs.
The move came after Sebelius in Washington last week to meet with federal lawmakersbreezed through two confirmation hearings despite some tax concerns that raised the specter of problems faced by former Sen. Tom Daschle, who failed in his bid for the HHS post.
In February, the widely liked Daschle withdrew from consideration when it was discovered that he had not paid $140,000 in back taxes and interest from a consulting job and car services used in the private sector.
Last week, Sebelius said that she had paid about $8,000 in back taxes and interest on a handful of charitable donations, a home loan and other business expenses from 2005 through 2007. Separately, Sebelius has been asked to divest four investment holdings, some of which could pose a conflict with her duties as HHS secretary if confirmed, an administration spokeswoman said.
At least for now, members of the Senate did not seem overly concerned about the mistakes in her tax filings. But the relatively short shrift given to her tax problemsconsidered minor by many members of the Senate Finance Committeeapparently belied other questions that lawmakers posed to the governor in private.
Members from both parties said they needed more time to review the governors answers, which were submitted during a week when the governor first went before a Senate panel chaired by Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and then faced Baucus committee.
The question over stock holdings and her taxes came up only briefly during her confirmation hearing. Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, the senior Republican on the committee, raised the issue of some tax irregularities, but did not press the governor on them.
Meanwhile, Sebelius has been advised by an ethics panel to divest her holdings in a number of stocks, including Fidelity Advisor Energy Fund, Kronos Worldwide, NL Industries and Westar Energy.
Kronos and NL make titanium dioxide, which is used in FDA-regulated products such as makeup and sunscreen. HHS also oversees the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which is why the governor has been asked to divest in the energy investments.
An administration spokeswoman said that Sebelius and her husband would divest their interests within 90 days of her confirmation.
Sebelius did not take questions from reporters at the hearing, though she has shed some light on where she stood on several major issues that will come up during her tenure at HHS, if confirmed. The governor said she would support government negotiation of Part D drugs, would doggedly work to snuff out fraud and abuse, and would focus on prevention and wellness.
Sebelius also reiterated her support for a public health insurance planan effort being led at the congressional level by Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.). The governor said that a public plan option, if constructed effectively and wisely with some actuarial help and support, can be a very effective tool in providing one more choice and option to American consumers. But she also opened the door for other options, as well.
The issue of a public option has proven a thorny one in the debate on how best to reshape the healthcare system (March 23, p. 6). Many Republicans remain staunchly opposed to the issue, saying that it would effectively draw individuals out of private plans, creating an unfair playing field.
Shes very well-qualified, Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) said, adding that questions over her taxes would not affect her role as HHS secretary. Asked about the importance of the job in the face of health reform challenges, Lincoln said Its going to be huge.
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