The woman who is likely to oversee the ongoing implementation of the Obama administration's healthcare law faced little opposition from Republicans at her first confirmation hearing Thursday, as they focused on her qualifications to serve rather than the law they uniformly despise.
Republican senators, acknowledging their deep support of would-be Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell in unanimously confirming her for her current position as White House Management and Budget Secretary, resorted to backhand compliments and swipes at her predecessor Kathleen Sebelius —and sometimes outright endorsements.
“Ms. Burwell, you have a reputation for competence,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), the ranking Republican on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee. “And I would respectfully suggest, you’re going to need it.”
“I advised her against taking the leadership position at HHS,” said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) as he sat as a witness on behalf of Burwell. “After all, who would recommend their friend take over as captain of the Titanic, after it hit the iceberg?”
Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) gave her an outright endorsement for the position, saying Burwell had “a portfolio of experience that would make her a tremendous asset.”
The questioning was surprisingly soft. While some lawmakers quizzed her on the Independent Payment Advisory Board, a federal agency created by the law to lower Medicare costs that some conservatives feared would be "death panels," Burwell simply responded that it was her estimate that the board would never actually be activated.
Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) called Sebelius “an ambassador for Obamacare,” and asked if Burwell would be too. The nominee replied she would “serve the American people," to which Scott responded with a simple “thank you.”
The hearing confirmed Burwell's widespread popularity on Capitol Hill. Burwell, a former Rhodes scholar who has served on the foundations of both Bill Gates and Walmart, was confirmed as the Office of Management and Budget Director last year by a vote of 96 to 0. Before the hearing, the head of a major health insurance lobby—Karen Ignagni of America's Health Insurance Plans—released a statement overwhelmingly supporting Burwell.
Recently Democrats have gone on the offensive on health care, since the HealthCare.gov site to enroll in federal health care exchanges exceeded expectations with over 8 million sign-ups, despite its disastrous October rollout. Thursday’s hearing was no exception, as Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.), who is in one of the fiercest Senate races of the year, used the opportunity to speak of the benefits of the law. At one point, she asked Burwell how much it would have cost the state government to expand the Medicaid program in her state over the next few years.
“That would be zero,” Burwell replied. “The federal government would pay for those years.”
Hagan then touted that as many as 500,000 constituents could have benefited from the Medicaid expansion, which the Republican majority in the state government blocked.
Hagan's opponent this year is Thom Tillis, the State House Speaker who won a Senate primary on Tuesday after making opposition to Obamacare a key part of his platform.