Sebelius gets gentle hearing, with little mention of taxes

WASHINGTON — Maybe it was the urgency of the health care crisis, or the Senate's urge to finish business before leaving town for a two-week recess. But Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius breezed through her Senate confirmation hearing as health secretary Thursday.

Nothing contentious emerged. Her support of abortion rights, which has rallied conservative groups against her, didn't get aired, nor did her recent payment of nearly $8,000 in back taxes because of what she called "unintentional errors" on her returns.

The tone of the hearing was more reflected by Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, who said, "Reformers are glad that you're coming to town. We are going to . . . end 60 years of gridlock."

Democratic Sen. Max Baucus of Montana, the Finance Committee chairman, said he hoped to get the two-term governor confirmed this week.

His timeline could be optimistic, however. Confirming Sebelius to run the Department of Health and Human Services would mean both the committee and then the full Senate would have to vote on her nomination Friday.

The former is doable. The latter is not impossible, but perhaps unlikely. The Senate is waist-deep in budget debates and plans to leave town this weekend.

The committee got a gentle chiding from former Kansas Sen. Bob Dole, Sebelius' patron this week as she appeared before two Senate panels.

Dole, a former Senate majority leader who knows a little about how the chamber works, said, "It would really be helpful if you could get her confirmed before the recess because she can't even get into the (Health and Human Services) building. So if you guys can all, you know, do something."

Sebelius spent a friendly two hours with the committee. The talk was of drug importation, insurance competition, Medicare and Obama's effort to overhaul health care, which Sebelius, a Democrat, would shepherd.

"Should I be confirmed," she said, "health reform would be my mission — as it is the president's — along with the tremendous responsibility of running this critical department."

She also pledged to "lead with science . . . that science-based, evidence-based research will be the primary goal."

Her tax problems came up only in passing. Sebelius paid the back taxes and interest when an accountant she hired after President Barack Obama nominated her found errors on her tax returns. They involved charitable donations, business expenses and the sale of a home.

"I take tax matters very seriously and I am eager for you to address those matters," Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, the committee's ranking Republican, said in his opening remarks.

He never raised it again, however, nor did she or anyone else.

Instead, lawmakers from both parties praised her knowledge about health care — she was the Kansas insurance commissioner before she was governor — and seemed eager for her to get started.

The Obama administration has linked the economic crisis to the soaring costs of health care. Both need to be fixed simultaneously, the president has said.

The U.S. spends more than $2 trillion on health care, and the cost is expected to double in the next decade. It represents about 16 cents out of every dollar spent in the economy. Meanwhile, 46 million Americans have no health coverage.

Finding consensus might not be easy, however. Right off the bat, Republicans are angry that Democrats might push a tactic known as "reconciliation," which would enable them to pass health legislation with just 51 votes. They wouldn't need a single Republican vote.

Republican Sen. Mike Enzi of Wyoming urged Sebelius to discourage the move. Along with Republican Sens. Pat Roberts of Kansas and Orrin Hatch of Utah, Enzi said he's trying to keep Republicans "calm during this debate because if we get to a point where nobody's listening, we can't get it resolved."

Sebelius agreed with Baucus that every American should have health coverage and said that Obama was "totally committed to that proposal."

During the campaign, Obama called only for children to be covered. Baucus wants everyone to be legally required to have insurance.

Sebelius said that Obama "has said repeatedly, every serious idea should be considered and vetted and put on the table."


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