WASHINGTON — The first Senate nomination hearing for prospective Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell offered no political fireworks or surprises Thursday.
President Barack Obama’s choice to replace outgoing department chief Kathleen Sebelius glided through nearly two hours of polite questioning from members of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. Gone was the hyper-partisan vitriol that characterized so many of Sebelius’ congressional appearances.
Burwell, the director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, received strong endorsements from committee Democrats and Republicans alike. But it was her introduction and opening statements of support from Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., that set the tone for the unusually cordial session.
Calling the post a thankless job, McCain said the department “needs competent leadership” and that he’d support Burwell’s nomination even though he opposed the Affordable Care Act. But he cautioned her not to become the new face of the health care law.
“After all, who would recommend their friend take over as captain of the Titanic after it hit the iceberg,” McCain joked.
Manchin described Burwell, a native of Hinton, W.Va., as a “dear friend” whose career in public service was nurtured by her mother, Cleo Mathews, a schoolteacher who served as the town’s mayor, and her father, William Mathews, an optometrist.
“I recommend her wholeheartedly,” Manchin said.
Sebelius, who’s been in the Obama Cabinet since 2009, said she was stepping down last month. She’d been a constant target of Republican attacks over the health care law, and she came in for considerable criticism last fall because of its rocky rollout.
Burwell, with her sister, brother-in-law, two friends and husband, Stephen, seated behind her, calmly fielded questions and told committee members of her formula for career success. Among other posts, the 49-year-old Burwell has served as the deputy chief of staff to President Bill Clinton, chief of staff to the treasury secretary and president of the Walmart Foundation.
“Whether in the public or private sector, working across a wide range of issues, I focus my work on three things: building strong relationships, building strong teams and delivering results,” she said.
Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., questioned whether Burwell would be “the ambassador of Obamacare or whether you will be the secretary of health and human services.”
Under questioning from Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the nominee was noncommittal about extending Obama’s three-year grace period that allows individuals to retain health insurance policies that don’t meet the law’s new consumer protections and coverage requirements.
Burwell called it “part of a transition period,” adding, “At this point, I think we want to see what is happening with regards to the issues of implementation.”
Alexander also asked whether she’d seek more flexibility for states to overhaul their Medicaid programs under the law. Burwell said states such as Arkansas had already exercised great flexibility by expanding Medicaid but requiring new beneficiaries to purchase private plans instead of enrolling in the traditional state-federal Medicaid program, which provides health care for the poor.
“Flexibility to meet the very needs of states is something that I think is important,” she replied.
Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., a longtime Sebelius family friend who eventually called for her resignation, asked whether Burwell supported expanding the law into a “single-payer” system, in which the federal government, rather than various insurers, pays for all health care costs.
“If I am confirmed, I will implement the law,” which supports a “market-based system,” Burwell replied. “I look forward to, if confirmed, making that system work as efficiently and effectively as possible.”
Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., wanted Burwell’s assurance that she’d prioritize a government study into elevated rates of cancer and Lou Gehrig’s disease among Marines who were stationed at North Carolina’s Camp Lejeune. Contaminated water at the base poisoned Marine veterans and family members.
“My understanding is that that work is going forward,” Burwell said. “And if I am confirmed, that is something that we’d want to work to make sure we do in the most expedited fashion.”
Burr responded with his own endorsement of Burwell’s confirmation, which will be voted on by the Senate Committee on Finance.
“She doesn’t come with a single experience that would make her a good secretary,” Burr said. “She comes with a portfolio of experience that would make her a tremendous asset at addressing some of the challenges that that agency specifically and uniquely has. And I look forward to her confirmation being quick.’
Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., voiced consternation with the Obama administration for not recommending funding to deepen the Savannah harbor in its 2015 budget proposal. As OMB director, Burwell has significant influence over the $652 million project.
“I don’t want you leaving OMB until I know that we are going to be able to move forward with the Savannah Harbor project,” which will allow larger cargo ships to utilize the shipping channel.
Burwell said the project stalled because the cost of the work increased more than 20 percent beyond the original estimate, which required Congress to reauthorize it.
“We need that reauthorization,” Burwell said. “What we need is the Congress to speak.”