Sebelius’ Tenure as Obamacare Overseer Hangs With Vulnerable Democrats

Posted October 23, 2013 at 6:19pm

Will the star witness who isn’t there become the sacrificial secretary?

Thursday’s marquee hearing at an otherwise quiet Capitol takes place at House Energy and Commerce. That’s where Republicans will launch their public investigation into what’s really wrong with and who’s really responsible for the centerpiece of the new health insurance marketplace that’s become such a wobbly mess.

Officials from four of the 55 contractors will testify, but no one from the Obama administration will appear. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius decided to spend the day out on the hustings, touting the benefits of the health care law across the Southwest. She has agreed to come before the committee next week instead.

It will be little surprise if the corporate executives, taking advantage of her absence as a rebuttal witness, push as much blame as possible for the online morass toward their government customers. What will be more newsworthy is if the wall of Democratic support for Sebelius starts to crumble.

Don’t be surprised if that happens. Although the party’s share of the committee dais is dominated by stalwart partisans in safe seats, two relatively junior Democrats — Jim Matheson of Utah and John Barrow of Georgia — opposed the law’s enactment, have supported many Republican efforts to defund or delay implementation, and are again being intensely targeted by the GOP for defeat in 2014 because they represent solidly red districts.

All of which explains why either lawmaker might decide to express frustration with the rollout by calling for the secretary’s head.

Another panel Democrat, Bruce Braley of Iowa, has signaled some skepticism about the law’s implementation in his front-running campaign for his state’s open Senate seat. He, too, might find it expedient to demand a high-level firing to atone for the mistakes to date.

In the Senate, the first hairline fracture in the party’s Obamacare wall of defense appeared Tuesday. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire and Mark Pryor of Arkansas, two of only five Democrats who now appear vulnerable in 2014, declared their support for extending the health exchange’s March 31 open enrollment deadline because of the problematic website. Word was that the other three — Mark Begich of Alaska, Kay Hagan of North Carolina and Mary L. Landrieu of Louisiana — were all on the cusp of doing the same.

And freshman Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, a former software company executive and Clinton White House aide in a swing district covering New York’s Hudson Valley, said in a tele-townhall that the flaws were too big to go unpunished. “I’d like to see somebody lose their job over this. I think it’s outrageous,” he said.

Maloney didn’t name Sebelius, but he hardly had to. Not only is HHS in charge of standing up the federal exchanges, but, after the president himself, she has been the top public face for the health care overhaul since she assumed the secretary’s job four and a half years ago.

Although she was known for expanding Medicaid during six years as governor of Kansas and on the long list of vice-presidential prospects in 2008, Sebelius was not Obama’s initial pick for HHS. His first choice was former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, who withdrew six weeks into the administration because of a dustup over his taxes and his post-congressional lobbying.

The Sebelius nomination then ran into sustained trouble, mainly because of her support of abortion rights and the campaign money she’d taken from abortion providers; 31 Republicans opposed her — including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and half a dozen or so who, in the current climate, are considered anchors of the GOP establishment mainstream.

That background helps explain why Obama is inclined to keep Sebelius at her post indefinitely.

First, it would be enormously disruptive to the implementation if it suddenly became rudderless just as the all-hands-on-deck orders are being implemented to cure the functionality ailments in the next month. There’s likely to be a surge in traffic ahead of the Dec. 15 deadline for buying coverage that would start with the new year.

Second, the intensity of the partisan rift over the law would make it highly problematic for any Sebelius successor to win Senate confirmation, especially in an election year. With efforts to legislate an undermining of Obamacare at a dead end until 2015, at least 40 Republicans could be expected to launch a filibuster against whoever might be nominated as the next HHS secretary. He or she would become the next proxy for everything they still don’t like about the statute, turning the hearings into an extended forum for their skepticism about the administration’s competence and honesty during the implementation.

“I think my job is to get this fully implemented and to get the website working right,” Sebelius said in a CNN interview Tuesday night, when asked if she and the president had discussed if she should step down.

She also declared that Obama knew nothing of the software mess before the rollout began three weeks ago — a sign that, so long as she stays in office, protecting the boss will also be part of her job.