Obama health nominee wins bipartisan support

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) introduces Sylvia Mathews Burwell at her confirmation hearing before the Senate Finance Committee.
Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) introduces Sylvia Mathews Burwell at her confirmation hearing before the Senate Finance Committee.
(Alex Wong / Getty Images)

President Obama’s pick to assume oversight of his signature health law received added bipartisan support Wednesday as more Republicans joined Democrats backing her nomination for secretary of Health and Human Services.

The growing support all but guarantees that Sylvia Mathews Burwell will be confirmed easily by the Senate to succeed Kathleen Sebelius, who has guided implementation of the Affordable Care Act for the last four years.

On Wednesday one of the Senate’s most conservative members, Republican Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, introduced Burwell before her testimony in front of the Senate Finance Committee, praising her as a competent, common-sense leader whom he said he would vote for on the Senate floor.

Last week, Burwell garnered support from Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Richard Burr of North Carolina.

Burwell’s hearing also signaled an unusual reserve by GOP lawmakers, who in recent years have used almost every opportunity to attack the health law and push for its repeal.


Though committee Republicans kept up criticism of the law, several asked more measured questions about specific fixes for the legislation, rather than renewing their calls for full-scale repeal.

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), the senior Republican on the committee, called on Burwell to strengthen state insurance marketplaces created by the health law, several of which struggled in their first year.

Sen. Michael Crapo (R-Idaho) expressed interest in working with Burwell to protect seniors’ access to private Medicare plans, which the law aims to streamline by reducing government subsidies for the insurance companies that offer them.

Burwell, a West Virginia native and the daughter of an optometrist, currently serves as head of the White House Office of Management and Budget, one of the most powerful positions in most administrations.

Burwell is a veteran of the Clinton White House, where she was deputy director of the budget office.

After leaving the federal government, she worked for a decade at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, part of the time as its chief operating officer. Most recently, she headed the Walmart Foundation, the philanthropic arm of Wal-Mart Stores Inc.

Lauded by Democrats and Republicans for her experience in and out of Washington, she was unanimously confirmed last year for the budget post.

Few believe Burwell’s confirmation as health secretary will end the political fighting over the Affordable Care Act. While the Finance Committee was considering her nomination, other GOP lawmakers kept up their attacks on the law on the Senate floor.

And at the Finance Committee hearing Wednesday, Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) delivered a warning to Burwell that congressional Republicans remained very concerned about how the Obama administration had implemented the law.

“You are going to have to be willing to break the whatever-means-necessary mind-set,” he said.

The committee must vote on Burwell’s nomination before it reaches the floor. Changes in the filibuster rules will allow Democrats to confirm her with a simple majority, eliminating the need for Republican votes.