By Elise Viebeck - 12/05/14 06:02 PM EST
The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is asking lawmakers not to seat ObamaCare consultant Jonathan Gruber next to Medicare's top official when the two testify on Capitol Hill next week.
HHS Assistant Secretary for Legislation Jim Esquea wrote to the House Oversight Committee with the request, stating that government witnesses are "almost always afforded an opportunity" to sit alone or with other federal officials.
The Oversight panel, led by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), is preparing to grill Gruber over his comments that the "stupidity of the American voter" and a "lack of transparency" helped ObamaCare pass in 2010.
"The request is currently before Chairman Issa but at past hearings, government officials have testified alongside other non-administration witnesses," said Becca Watkins, a spokeswoman for the committee.
While he has apologized, Gruber's remarks have become their own flashpoint in debates over ObamaCare. Republicans say the comments confirm their view that the law was not passed in an open process.
Democrats have sought to distance themselves from Gruber. The Esquea letter is the clearest example related to Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Administrator Marilyn Tavenner, who will serve as a witness at the same hearing.
Having the two seated together — with all the resulting photos — would be a public relations nightmare for the administration. The letter was first reported by Politico.