Dem Baucus joins GOP in blasting Obama CMS recess appointment

Echoing Republicans, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) on Wednesday blasted the Obama administration for sidestepping Congress to install Donald Berwick atop the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS).

"Senate confirmation of presidential appointees is an essential process prescribed by the Constitution that serves as a check on executive power and protects Montanans and all Americans by ensuring that crucial questions are asked of the nominee — and answered," Baucus said in a statement.

Berwick had not been vetted by the Finance panel, nor had Baucus scheduled a hearing to examine the nominee.

Baucus's office did not respond to requests for comment Wednesday. Baucus is the first Democrat to criticize the recess appointment, which Republicans have blasted.

“As if shoving a trillion-dollar government takeover of healthcare down the throat of a disapproving American public wasn't enough, apparently the Obama administration intends to arrogantly circumvent the American people yet again by recess-appointing one of the most prominent advocates of rationed healthcare to implement their national plan," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said in a statement.

McConnell criticized Democrats for not holding a confirmation hearing for Berwick, and suggested the party was trying to avoid tough questions about the healthcare reform law.

"Democrats haven't scheduled so much as a committee hearing for Donald Berwick, but the mere possibility of allowing the American people the opportunity to hear what he intends to do with their healthcare is evidently reason enough for this administration to sneak him through without public scrutiny."

Berwick, a Harvard pediatrician and founder of the Institute for Healthcare Improvement, is a revered figure within the healthcare community, winning the endorsement of a long list of stakeholders, including providers, insurers, patient advocates, labor groups and businesses. But his 2008 praise of Britain's nationalized healthcare system has riled a number of Senate Republicans in opposition to his nomination. The critics say that he would ration care in the name of cutting costs — and threaten the well-being of seniors as a result.

In a statement released Wednesday morning, President Barack Obama blamed Republicans for holding up the appointment of Berwick and two others filled as recess appointments. Obama did not offer a direct comment on Berwick.

“It’s unfortunate that at a time when our nation is facing enormous challenges, many in Congress have decided to delay critical nominations for political purposes,” Obama said. “These recess appointments will allow three extremely qualified candidates to get to work on behalf of the American people right away. With more than 180 nominees still pending before the Senate, it’s my hope that my colleagues in Congress will agree to put politics aside and move forward on these vitally important positions.”

Berwick will be able to lead CMS until the end of 2011 under the recess appointment, which negates the need for a Senate confirmation vote.

Use of recess-appointment powers is hardly unheard of; Obama filled 15 administration posts via their use in March, including Craig Becker to the National Labor Relations Board. Becker's nomination was strongly opposed by business groups upset he would shift power to unions on the NLRB.

Republican Sens. John Barrasso (Wyo), Pat Roberts (Kan.) and Tom Coburn (Okla.) have led the movement to block Berwick's appointment — with the blessing of GOP leaders. That entrenched opposition would have made it extremely difficult for Democrats to rally the 60 votes needed to push Berwick through the Senate. 

Recognizing the impasse — and still stinging from the loss of Dawn Johnsen, a Justice Department nominee who removed herself from consideration in April in the face of unyielding GOP opposition — the White House on Tuesday night announced that it would appoint Berwick without Congress's input. With the new health reform law in need of implementation, White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer said, someone needs to be at the helm of CMS, which has been without a permanent chief since 2006.

"There’s no question that Don Berwick is the right choice to be our next CMS administrator," Pfeiffer wrote in a blog. "He’s dedicated his career to finding ways to make our healthcare system work better for patients and cost less for taxpayers."

The Republicans have another take, with Barrasso calling the move "an insult to the American people" that makes "a mockery of [Obama's] pledge to be accountable and transparent."

McConnell agreed, saying that "Americans' worst fears" about health reform are "being realized every day."  

"The fact that this administration won't allow the man charged with implementing the president's plan to cut $500 billion out of Medicare to testify about his plans for the care of our nation's seniors is truly outrageous,” he said. 

This story was posted at 8:44 a.m. and updated at 10:39 a.m. and 11:40 a.m.