President Barack Obama has asked Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius to move to the very center of one of America's most difficult and expensive challenges — remaking health care.
The White House confirmed Saturday that Sebelius, 60, has accepted the president's nomination to run the Department of Health and Human Services. The formal nomination will come Monday.
If approved by the Senate, Sebelius will assume responsibility for a $730-plus billion budget — almost a fifth of all federal spending — and well-known programs like Medicare, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Chris Jennings, senior health care advisor in the Clinton White House, said Sebelius is a good choice to lead Obama's effort to extend health insurance to more Americans.
"She is not some Johnny-come-lately to the debate," he said. "She is well-respected by the policy community and stake-holder community and by many on the Hill who know her. That stretches to Republicans and Democrats."
The choice marks a career pinnacle for the Kansas Democrat, who was first elected to the Kansas House in 1986. She began service as the state’s insurance commissioner in 1994, and was elected governor in 2002 and 2006.
"I am thrilled our good friend, Governor Kathleen Sebelius, is nominated for this high Cabinet post," said Kansas Democratic party chairman Larry Gates. "I applaud President Obama for nominating someone with the knowledge, skills and compassion needed to bring change to America's health care system."
"I've been in politics for three and a half decades," said lobbyist and former Kansas Democratic lawmaker Bill Reardon, "and I don't know if I've ever been around somebody as talented and capable as Kathleen Sebelius…I hate to lose her."
Sebelius will remain Kansas governor until she is confirmed by the Senate. At that point, Lt. Gov. Mark Parkinson would take the state's top job, serving through 2010.
The pick has been rumored for weeks.
In December, Sebelius withdrew from consideration as a potential Cabinet secretary, telling Kansans she wanted to help solve the state's budget crisis.
But her name resurfaced in February after Obama’s first choice for HHS, former Sen. Tom Daschle, withdrew following disclosures that he had failed to pay some of his taxes on time.
Some Republicans criticized Sebelius' decision to leave the governor's mansion in the middle of a massive budget fight.
"It's just another broken political promise by Kathleen Sebelius," said Kansas GOP spokesman Christian Morgan. "But honestly, and I've said this before — I'll help her pack."
Others criticized her for withdrawing from consideration for the Cabinet and now changing her mind.
But supporters said Obama picked Sebelius because of her ability to compromise with the heavily-Republican legislature – in a heavily Republican state like Kansas.