By Elise Viebeck, Jonathan Easley and Justin Sink - 04/10/14 06:38 PM EDT
Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius will resign from President Obama’s Cabinet on Friday, ceding her role as the top official in charge of ObamaCare.
Sebelius's long-expected departure comes just two weeks after the end of ObamaCare's first enrollment period, which culminated in the administration exceeded its original target of enrolling 7 million people in the exchanges.
This week Sebelius said 7.5 million people had now signed up for a plan, and she'll be able to leave her post arguing that the healthcare law is in a good place.
But the victory for the White House came after a troubled launch for HealthCare.gov that created a firestorm for Obama and sapped his party's political momentum from the government shutdown last fall.
Democrats are worried they will lose control of the Senate this fall, and many in the party blame Sebelius in large part for their predicament.
A White House official said Sebelius told Obama of her decision to leave in early March, and that the president was greatful for her contributions.
Despite the problem-plagued rollout, Sebelius was kept on as the administration’s public face of the law over the course of the six-month enrollment period.
As recently as April 1, the White House said the president had “full confidence” in Sebelius. She was present at Obama’s healthcare law victory speech in the Rose Garden earlier this month, but was not publicly thanked by the president at that time.
In a statement, the Health and Human Services Department lauded Sebelius's work in the administration.
"From her work on Head Start, to expanding mental health coverage, to advancing cutting-edge health care research and, of course, her unwavering leadership in implementing the Affordable Care Act, Secretary Sebelius often calls her work here the most meaningful of her life," the statement from spokeswoman Erin Shields Britt said. "As she closes this chapter, Secretary Sebelius is extremely thankful to President Obama and very proud of the historic accomplishments of this administration."
It’s been a rough six months for Sebelius. She and her staff were called to testify in front of dozens of congressional panels, the media flocked to every event she participated in, and the agencies she oversaw were under enormous pressure to provide updates and data on the rollout.
Lawmakers from both parties had called for her to resign. The Obama administration insisted it would hold officials responsible for their work, but quietly signaled that drastic measures couldn’t take place while the federal website struggled to get off the ground.
One of ObamaCare's most vocal critics, Rep. Issa, (R-Calif.) declared that Sebelius' "tenure as the head of the Department of Health and Human Services may be at an end, but Americans will be dealing with the repercussions of the president's health law for a very long time," he said in a statement.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said, “It’s fitting that nearly one year after the primary legislative architect of Obamacare predicted it would be a train wreck that the government official most responsible for overseeing it reportedly is resigning," according to a statement.
"Regardless of the administration’s public explanation for the Secretary’s exit, Obamacare has been a rolling disaster and her resignation is cold comfort to the millions of Americans who were deceived about what it would mean for them and their families."
Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) also stated that Sebelius has one of Washington's tougest jobs, "implementing ObamaCare, a flawed law that continues to fall woefully short of its promises to the American people."
"While we haven’t always agreed, Secretary Sebelius did the best she could during the tumultuous and volatile rollout of the law," Hatch said. "I thank her for her service and wish her and her family all the best in their future endeavors.”
Sebelius had served as secretary since 2009. She was governor of Kansas prior to that.
Burwell, the woman that Obama will nominate to replace her, is a veteran of the Clinton administration who has served the past year as Obama's budget director.
She was confirmed to that post in a 96-0 vote last April, buoyed by her reputation as a key player in Clinton's push to balance the budget during the 1990s. Burwell also served as the head of the Wal-Mart foundation, and the president of the global development program of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
The White House official described her as a proven manager and someone the president had relied upon.
Sebelius had served as HHS secretary since the earliest days of the Obama administration, and worked for years to lay the groundwork for the launch of the health exchanges by overseeing a slew of new regulations.
She was Obama's second choice for the position. Her nomination came after a tax scandal prompted former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) to withdraw his name from consideration.
Sebelius was seen as an occasional liability for the administration, making comments that fed Republican attacks.
She struggled to defend the healthcare law in media appearances, and her attempts at downplaying the problems were lampooned during "Saturday Night Live."
One sketch, which poked fun at Sebelius as an upbeat manager in denial, led one Republican senator to blast the secretary as a "laughingstock."
Sebelius on several occasions told lawmakers that no additional rollout delays were imminent, remarks that were quickly proven false.
House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) subpoenaed her for records in October, and earlier this year, threatened to investigate her for perjury.
Sebelius and others in the administration also infuriated Republicans by enacting a string of unilateral changes to the law.
The controversy that surrounded Sebelius suggests Burwell will face a contentious confirmation battle in the Senate. However, due to filibuster changes enacted last year, Democrats should be able to confirm her with a simple majority.
Still, Republicans pounced on Sebelius's resignation as a broader sign of the healthcare law's failures and vowed to continue beating the drum against the law ahead of the midterm elections.
"Secretary Sebelius oversaw a disastrous rollout of ObamaCare, but anyone can see that there are more problems on the way," said Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus.
"No matter who is in charge of HHS, ObamaCare will continue to be a disaster and will continue to hurt hardworking Americans. It's time for President Obama to admit that Democrats' signature law is a failure and heed Republican calls for patient-centered healthcare reform."
— This story was last updated at 10:07 p.m.