Dems close ranks behind Sebelius

Senate Democrats on Tuesday closed ranks behind Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius, declaring she should keep her job despite problems plaguing the Affordable Care Act’s insurance exchanges.

Democrats sought to deflect criticism by Republicans who have called for Sebelius’s ouster over what even Democrats acknowledge has been a botched rollout of the landmark law.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), the chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, praised the implementation of ObamaCare for proceeding smoothly compared to other massive federal programs.

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“If you compare it to all kinds of other programs of large magnitude, it’s actually ahead of schedule, including Social Security, Medicare and a whole lot of other things,” he said.

Rockefeller said neither Sebelius nor any other high-ranking officials at Health and Human Services should be fired.

“Should any Republicans have stepped down?” he asked in reference to GOP lawmakers who have repeatedly attempted to impede the law’s implementation. 

Sebelius is scheduled to testify Wednesday before the House Energy and Commerce Committee, where she faces a harsh reception.

Two centrist Democrats facing tough reelections next year pointedly declined to defend Sebelius — but they did not call for her resignation either.

“I haven’t decided. I’m not calling for it. I’ll look at it. I’ll continue to monitor it,” said Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), one of the chamber’s most vulnerable incumbents in 2014.

“I think that’s up to the president, but people should be held accountable,” said Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) when asked about Sebelius’s future. “The president is the executive. He should make these decisions.”

In the House, Rep. Mike McIntyre (D-N.C.), a perennial GOP target, also declined to endorse Sebelius or call for her removal.

“No comment,” McIntyre told The Hill.

Other centrist Democrats in the Senate defended the embattled health secretary.

“I think we need to quit worrying about placing blame and start worrying about getting the system to work,” said Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.).

She said it’s too early to know whether any administration officials should lose their jobs because of systematic technical problems affecting HealthCare.gov.

“I believe we need to keep all hands on deck getting this fixed. Yes, Kathleen Sebelius needs to take responsibility, but it will cause more problems, in my view, having the secretary step down at this point,” said Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), one of the GOP’s top targets in 2014.

Marilyn Tavenner, the head of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), apologized for the botched rollout during a House hearing Tuesday.

“I want to apologize to [the American people] that the website has not worked as well as it should,” she told the House Ways and Means Committee.

Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.), the committee’s chairman, complained that Sebelius had told his panel “a dozen times that the administration would be ready” for the Oct. 1 rollout date.

He said if CMS, which falls under the Department of Health and Human Services, had been more honest about the law’s problems, “many of these glitches could have been avoided.”

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) set the tone Tuesday when he demanded on the Senate floor that Sebelius face consequences.

“Taxpayers have spent $400 million to create exchanges that, after 3 1/2 years, still don’t work,” he said.  “No private sector chief executive officer would escape accountability after such a poor performance.”

His speech caught the attention of Senate Democrats, who are more inclined to ignore conservative and Tea Party critics like Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas).

“I respect Lamar Alexander. I know he’s part of the common-ground coalition,” said Landrieu. “But the Republican Party, their right-wing extremists have been undermining this effort every way, shape or form.”

Landrieu clarified that she does not view Alexander as an extremist but said any blame leveled at the law’s faulty rollout should also be directed at the GOP.

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) praised Sebelius as “strong and smart.”

“She knows the problems, at this point, better than anyone else, and I have confidence in her,” she said.

McCaskill said lower-ranking officials who might have misrepresented the technical progress of the law’s implementation should face punishment.

“The hard thing is going to be pinpointing who’s responsible,” she said.

“I would not be opposed if someone presented to the secretary and to others who did not have great technical capability that technically that everything was perfect — that’s probably the person who should be fired.

“Somebody knew that there were huge technical problems,” McCaskill added.  

Democrats expressed hoped that Jeffrey Zients, the former deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget, would help smooth the law’s implementation.

“I have a lot of faith in Jeff Zients, and let’s see what they come up with,” said Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.), the third-ranking member of the Senate Democratic leadership.

He predicted the law’s glitches “will be forgotten rather quickly in our fast-moving world.”

Jonathan Easley, Peter Schroeder and Molly K. Hooper contributed.