Burwell era begins for ObamaCare

The Senate voted 78-17 Thursday to confirm Sylvia Burwell as secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), ushering in a new era for the Obama administration on healthcare. 

More than 20 Republicans joined Democrats in approving Burwell’s nomination to replace Kathleen Sebelius as the second Cabinet official ever to oversee ObamaCare. 

“She is a leader with a head and a heart,” Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said of Burwell. “We can come together to make the law work better.”

The Senate is handing Burwell the reins of Washington's most complicated and politically fraught department at a fragile time for ObamaCare's implementation. 

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The administration has recovered since last fall, when the exchanges launched with severe flaws that plunged the rollout into technical and political chaos, but there are major challenges ahead.

President Obama could come under heavy pressure to roll back unpopular parts of the law if Republicans take back the Senate in the midterm elections. 

In addition, several key provisions, including the employer mandate and the SHOP exchange, have yet to be fully implemented. 

Obama on Thursday hailed the “strong, bipartisan” vote for Burwell and praised her as a “proven manager who knows how to deliver results.”

“I’m confident Sylvia’s unparalleled experience will serve her well in her new role as she works to ensure the safety of our food and drug supply, protect our nation from outbreaks or bioterror attacks, keep America at the forefront of medical research, and make sure every American has access to quality, affordable healthcare.”

Thursday's vote brings down the curtain Sebelius's rocky tenure, which saw her become the face of the botched rollout and several other controversies. 

The former Kansas governor was a frequent target on the right, and her relationships with Republicans were increasingly strained during her six-and-a-half years in office. 

At one point, federal investigators found Sebelius had violated the Hatch Act by advocating for Democrats in a February 2012 speech. The event contributed to a breakdown in her relationships with the GOP. 

It’s up to Burwell to try and ease the tensions. Republicans stressed that they expect her to keep them informed about ObamaCare's rollout, after many felt that Sebelius stonewalled their requests for information.  

“I’m looking forward to having someone in there who will answer the hard questions,” Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) said. “Ms. Burwell is taking on a serious challenge.”

Burwell received glowing praise from many Republican lawmakers that smoothed her path to confirmation, which was never in doubt thanks to last year’s change to filibuster rules.

Members on both sides of the aisle praised her management skills and communication. Some GOP lawmakers, however, used the vote as an opportunity to protest ObamaCare. 

“She’ll be the Chief Operating Officer of ObamaCare implementation — a law that’s doing incredible damage to middle class families in this country,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said ahead of the vote. 

“In my view the Senate shouldn’t be focusing on a new captain for the Titanic. It should focus on steering away from the iceberg.”

McConnell is facing a tough reelection race in November and has been an ardent critic of ObamaCare, though he has suggested Kentucky could choose to have a healthcare exchange if the law is repealed.

Burwell had been serving as director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) since August 2013. 

Obama has nominated Shaun Donovan, who leads the Department of Housing and Urban Development, to replace her as budget chief.

The Senate on Thursday also confirmed by voice-vote Carolyn Hessler Radelet to be director of the Peace Corps.

— This story was updated at 2:35 p.m.

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