By Elise Viebeck - 05/08/14 11:56 AM EDT
Senate Republicans mounted little resistance Thursday to Sylvia Burwell, President Obama's nominee to replace Kathleen Sebelius as head of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) preemptively referred to Burwell as "secretary" and described her "incredible" experience with the Walmart Foundation, where she managed a charity budget of more than $1 billion.
"I know no one who does not have the highest praise for her," McCain said. "To say I was impressed would be an understatement."
The warm welcome at the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee was a notable contrast from last fall, when lawmakers fought intensely in hearings over the path of ObamaCare's rollout.
Republican attacks were muted Thursday as several GOP lawmakers focused on other healthcare issues and did not mention ObamaCare.
Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) was one exception, appearing at the end of the hearing with sharp rhetoric about cancelled plans and missing data from the administration.
"I want to ask you about promises made and promises not kept," Scott said. "Will you be the HHS secretary of the American people or the ambassador of ObamaCare?"
While emphasizing her commitment to the Affordable Care Act, Burwell promised to work closely with both parties on Capitol Hill to improve HHS’s operations.
"Whether in the private or public escort, I focus my work on three things: building strong relationships, building strong teams, and delivering results," Burwell said.
GOP lawmakers solicited Burwell's views on major policy debates, such as how ObamaCare will affect the economy, the deficit and federal healthcare costs.
Not surprisingly, Burwell sided with the administration on every point.
"The Affordable Care Act is strengthening the economy ... reducing the deficit and providing great savings," she said.
At the same time, Burwell played up her desire to be flexible on certain issues, like states' desire to expand Medicaid in alternative ways.
She also sought to quiet debate on the cost-cutting Independent Payment Advisory Board and other controversial topics.
"IPAB never needs to be used," Burwell said, noting that the panel is only triggered when the rate of healthcare spending rises above a certain level.
"In the current window that we're looking at, it is our estimate that it would never be activated," she said.
The path to confirmation for Burwell would look very different had Senate Democrats not used the "nuclear option" last year.
The procedural maneuver gave Democrats the power to confirm nominees like Burwell with a simple majority vote, which means they can approve Obama's choices without any Republican support. Last April, she was confirmed to head the Office of Management and Budget by a vote of 96-0.
Capitol Hill's attention was also fragmented Thursday between a looming vote on the House's select committee on Benghazi and an appearance by Federal Reserve Chairwoman Janet Yellen before the Senate Budget Committee.
Attendance at Senate HELP was sparse, but the lawmakers who were on hand offered effusive recommendations for Burwell. McCain and Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), neither of whom are members of the committee, appeared at the beginning to deliver glowing statements.
Manchin described his longtime relationship with Burwell's family, which hails from West Virginia, and delivered several anecdotes about her befitting a high school graduation ceremony.
"We're not here to change anyone's mind on the Affordable Care Act," he said in a comment that became the hearing's theme. "That's not what we're here to do. We're here to get the most responsible, the most talented person who can lead us."
Republican Sen. Richard Burr (N.C.) echoed the remark later in delivering a full-throated endorsement of Burwell.
"She doesn't come with a single experience that would make her a good secretary — she comes with a portfolio," Burr said. "I look forward to the confirmation being quick."
The Senate Finance Committee will hold a final hearing and vote before Burwell's nomination is considered on the floor. HELP members did not vote on Thursday.
--This report was updated at 1:25 p.m.