Health nominee Kathleen Sebelius clears hurdle

Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius won the endorsement of a divided Senate Finance Committee on Tuesday, probably clearing the way for her confirmation as President Obama’s secretary of Health and Human Services. But eight of the 10 Republicans on the panel voted against her, underscoring the increasingly partisan nature of the emerging healthcare debate on Capitol Hill.

Among the dissenters was Iowa Sen. Charles E. Grassley, the committee’s senior GOP lawmaker and a leading healthcare authority who some Democrats had hoped would support health reform legislation this year.

A spokeswoman for Grassley said he was concerned about “a lack of candor” by Sebelius over political contributions from George Tiller, a Kansas doctor who performs abortions. Sebelius this month told the committee she had inadvertently understated those contributions. She also had to amend her tax returns to cover $7,040 in underpayments.


Republican lawmakers, frustrated by Democratic talk of limiting the GOP’s ability to filibuster healthcare legislation, are growing increasingly resistant to the president’s health agenda. Republicans also have complained about Sebelius’ support for a new government insurance program to help cover millions of people who lack insurance.

Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona, the No. 2 Republican in the chamber, accused Sebelius of supporting federal research on the comparative effectiveness of drugs and medical procedures, which critics say could open the door to the government denying coverage for more expensive care.

“The administration is unwilling to support pro-patient safeguards,” Kyl charged.

In written responses to questions from Kyl, Sebelius said the research was not intended to limit coverage.

“Comparative effectiveness is about gathering and sharing information on what’s most effective; it has nothing to do with government dictating choices or rationing care,” she wrote.

The final committee vote was 15 to 8, with Republicans Olympia J. Snowe of Maine and Pat Roberts of Kansas joining the committee’s 13 Democrats.

Sebelius, the last of Obama’s Cabinet nominees awaiting confirmation, has received strong endorsements from Democrats, who praise her record of pushing health reform as governor and insurance commissioner of Kansas.

As head of Health and Human Services, Sebelius would oversee the federal government’s largest domestic department, a 65,000-employee behemoth that runs the severely strained Medicare and Medicaid programs and other agencies, including the Food and Drug Administration.

The full Senate is expected to vote next week on her nomination.