Kansas Gov. Sebelius is a leading candidate for HHS job

Kansas City StarFebruary 4, 2009 

Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius emerged Wednesday as a leading candidate for the Cabinet post of secretary of Health and Human Services.

"I've got to believe she's on the short, short, short list," said Ron Pollack of the health advocacy group Families USA in Washington. "I think the likelihood is enormous."

Sebelius' rapid elevation as a potential successor to nominee Daschle came after the former senator from South Dakota withdrew Tuesday following a controversy over unpaid taxes. And it came a day after Sebelius' office declined to end speculation that she might be interested in the job.

On Wednesday, her office declined to respond to a request for comment. "We don't have anything new today," spokesman Beth Martino said.

The Health and Human Services secretary is expected to be one of the administration's marquee players on one of the nation's most pressing issues — national health care reform. Already concerns have arisen that Daschle's withdrawal will postpone President Barack Obama's push on that front.

"If you don't have a secretary of HHS, it hurts," Sen. Christopher Dodd, a Connecticut Democrat, told National Public Radio. "It slows things down. So this has been a setback."

But none of that is expected to undermine the job's importance. Sebelius, 60 and a former state lawmaker, also served two terms as the Kansas insurance commissioner before becoming governor in 2003. She advocated increases in the cigarette tax as a way to expand health coverage during her first term as governor.

Kansas Congressman Dennis Moore, a fellow Democrat, said Wednesday the governor would do a good job if the position were offered.

"She'd be extremely qualified to take that position in the administration if it's offered to her," Moore said. 'I'd sure hate to lose her as governor of Kansas, but she'd be an exceptional Cabinet secretary as well."

Said Congressman Todd Tiahrt, a Republican: "I wish Governor Sebelius the best. I know many Kansans would be happy if she was selected for a Cabinet-level position in the Obama administration."

Among the other names being mentioned for the post were former New Jersey Gov. Bill Bradley, former Democratic National Committee head Howard Dean, former Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber and President Clinton's former Chief of Staff John Podesta.

But Pollack said Sebelius stood out from the pack.

"Governor Sebelius is probably the most knowledgeable governor in the country about health care," he said. "She served as insurance commissioner. She was president of the National Association of Insurance Commissioners. She was appointed by President Clinton...to a commission that crafted the patients' bill of rights.

"And she obviously has a very close relationship with the president. It seems to me there would be every reason to think she is a leading candidate."

But leaving her post as governor would be tricky, coming as it would less than two months after she withdrew from consideration for Obama's Cabinet on Dec. 6.

At the time, she said she wanted to focus on state spending "given the extraordinary budget challenges facing our state."

While joining the Obama team would be exciting, she said at the time that "my service to the citizens who elected me is my top priority in these difficult times."

Finessing an about-face would be awkward, but manageable, said Joe Aistrup a Kansas State University political scientist.

"She has a problem with Kansas voters, but she's leaving the state," Aistrup said. "By the time she gets back here people will have forgotten it. And she will have on her resume that she was a secretary of HHS.

"She takes it and life moves on. It's not that she doesn't care about the voters and what they think, but her incentives to care about voters and what they think will have fundamentally changed."

If she winds up taking the job, Lt. Gov. Mark Parkinson would assume the governorship for the final nearly two years of Sebelius' term. He could not be reached for comment Wednesday, but in the past he has said he was ready to step in if Sebelius departed.

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