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Committee Vote on Sebelius a Preview of Fights Ahead?

The Senate Finance Committee’s largely party-line vote on Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius (D) to serve as secretary of Health and Human Services could be the preview for a partisan show this summer on health care reform.

“The vote says to Democrats that you have Republicans that believe health care needs to be bipartisan,— a senior GOP leadership aide said. “The vote outcome reflected that Republican concern.—

While she enjoyed a cozy confirmation hearing before the panel earlier this month, Sebelius’ nomination was approved 15-8 Tuesday. Even as a two-term Democratic governor from GOP-friendly Kansas, Sebelius could only woo the support of her home-state colleague, Sen. Pat Roberts (R), and the moderate Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine).

Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) briefly interrupted the committee’s friendlier roundtable discussion on health care to take up the nomination, and with that, the bipartisan tone in the room also broke.

“Unfortunately, Gov. Sebelius’ answers [during her confirmation hearings] made it clear that the administration is unwilling to support pro-patient safeguards,— Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) charged.

Kyl said Sebelius’ responses to written questions “left me with no assurance— the department would not employ cost-based evaluations to deny or delay health care coverage, which “should be a matter of concern to all of us.—

“I believe in the right of every American to choose the doctor, hospital and health plan of his or her choice,— the Whip went on. “No Washington bureaucrat should interfere with that right.—

Ranking member Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who typically enjoys a collegial working relationship with Baucus on the panel, also cast a vote against Sebelius.

“It was a surprisingly partisan vote,— a Senate Democratic aide said. “I don’t see any reason why they voted against her, other than that she is the face of the administration’s stance on health care reform.—

Sebelius was President Barack Obama’s second pick to fill the HHS post.

Former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) withdrew his nomination after coming under fire for failing to pay more than $100,000 in taxes on time.

While Daschle may have benefitted from closer ties in Congress than Sebelius, the Democratic aide said, “You have to wonder if any HHS nominee would’ve also seen the same opposition.— Sebelius has the support of home-state GOP Sens. Sam Brownback and Roberts, and she is expected to clear the full Senate soon, perhaps even later this week.

But the nominee’s fractured support hints that she will not have a mandate in steering health care policy through Congress this year. Baucus has pledged to have a markup on a reform bill in June, with the full Senate taking up legislation by August.

With the question of whether to include reconciliation rules in the fiscal 2010 budget resolution still unanswered, at least one Senate Democrat suggested Tuesday’s party-line vote might be cause to incorporate the rules and protect a health care bill from a Republican filibuster.

“It’s an ominous signal of the level of cooperation we can expect from the Republicans on health care,— Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said. “Maybe the Republicans are telling us they want us to pass health care reform through the budget reconciliation process.—

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