Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell is one of President Obama’s most liked appointees — despite leading his most embattled department.

On the cusp of the critical Supreme Court King v. Burwell ObamaCare decision that will put her in the history books, Burwell is earning raves from her political opponents one year into her job.

“I would consider her one of Obama’s very best Cabinet members,” said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), who oversees the department’s budget process. “She could give lessons to the president about how to work with Congress.”

“She came in with high expectations from Republicans as well as Democrats, and I think she’s met them,” added Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), who leads the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee. “I give her very high marks.”

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) — who has likened Burwell’s job to becoming the “captain of the Titanic after it hit the iceberg” — calls Burwell a friend.

“I think she’s doing a good job. She’s dealing with a difficult hand,” he said.

‘Blocking and tackling’

Burwell has worked to cultivate good relationships on both sides of the aisle.

Every six weeks or so, she meets for breakfast with the chairmen and ranking members of every committee that has jurisdiction over HHS issues.

On one occasion, she was invited for wine and cheese with members of the Senate’s HELP Committee.

Part of what makes her so effective, members say, is that she understands this “blocking and tackling of basic congressional relations,” Alexander said.

She is also tuned in to members’ personal interests. When Cole was quietly planning a trip to a center for child migrants in Oklahoma last year, he unexpectedly received a call from Burwell the day before he left telling him what to expect.

She also offered her personal cellphone number in case he saw anything that didn’t match what she had said.

“She’s a hard person not to like,” Cole said. “It’s like you always admire the best players on the other team, and you wish they were on their team. I admire Secretary Burwell a great deal, and I wish she was on my side of the aisle.”

The jiujitsu factor

One of her closest friends on Capitol Hill during her confirmation process last year was then-Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), who first met Burwell when she interviewed him for her sixth-grade newspaper in their shared home state.

He said he admires Burwell because of her unbreakable calm and humility — which he described as the “jiu jitsu factor”

Shortly after earning her degree from Harvard, Burwell moved to multiple top positions in the Clinton White House, as well as leadership stints at MetLife Insurance Company, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Wal-Mart Foundation.

In 2013, Burwell was confirmed, unanimously, as director of the White House’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB). One year later, she was tapped to replace former Secretary Kathleen Sebelius as health secretary, with just 17 senators voting against her.

Describing her as the “goddess of government,” Rockefeller said she sets herself apart from “most people who are Cabinet-types.”

“What she has done, at OMB and the White House and all the rest of it — she’s very good at politics, but you wouldn’t figure that, would you? She doesn’t talk like it,” Rockefeller said.

Burwell immediately stood out from her predecessor, Sebelius, who resigned after a humiliating breakdown of the website during the first days of ObamaCare sign-ups.

A safe pick for the administration, Burwell’s confirmation hearings were friendly and cordial. One headline said she faced a “barrage of flattery.”

Since then, Burwell has been forced to confront her own set of health crises, from a flood of child migrants to the rise of Ebola to a looming Supreme Court case against ObamaCare.

Nearly all have sparked contentious partisan battles on Capitol Hill, though she has proven to be less combative at committee hearings than her predecessor, who sometimes talked over members and raised her voice.

“I like Kathleen Sebelius a great deal. But she got really beaten up in congressional hearings. She was a little bit, and I appreciate this, too feisty,” Rockefeller said. “Sylvia is feisty without you thinking that she has any feistiness in it.”

Members say Burwell is generally friendly and is fully prepared to answer all questions — usually without notes.

“She’s got enormous credibility on both sides of the aisle,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), who leads the Senate’s Affordable Care Act Works campaign.

In a statement to The Hill, Burwell said she is “committed to working in a bipartisan fashion” if it means improving access to better healthcare.

“I’m a strong believer in the idea that people who share common interests can find common ground. We may have disagreements in some areas, but that should not prevent us from working together on the major health challenges before us, including opioids abuse, delivery system reform and global health security,” she wrote.

The court challenge

Burwell has had divisive moments in Congress, nearly all involving the upcoming Supreme Court case.

The court announced in November that it would be taking up King v. Burwell, which could strike down healthcare subsidies in at least 34 states that are not running their own insurance marketplaces.

One of the most intense exchanges came in February at a panel that was intended to focus on her department’s budget. Instead, sitting alone at the witness table, Burwell faced outbursts from the committee’s two highest-ranking Republicans about the administration’s court plans.

“You’re a highly intelligent, charming person, but you’ve refused to answer our questions, and to me, that doesn’t strike me as trying to work with Congress but rather [as] contemptuous of Congress’s responsibilities,” Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) said, raising his voice. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) seconded the remarks.

Two other Republicans, Sen. Ben Sasse (Neb.) and Rep. Phil Roe (Tenn.), said they’re both still waiting to hear from her.

Roe, who leads the House Education and the Workforce’s Health Subcommittee, said he’s disappointed Burwell hasn’t accepted an invitation to speak on the Affordable Care Act

“She’s very bright, very capable. But I’d still like to talk to her,” he said.

Still, Burwell has retained good relations, even with some of the members who have grilled her the most about the court case.

“The Secretary has one of the hardest jobs in Washington,” Hatch wrote in a statement to The Hill. “While we may fundamentally disagree on a number of issues, namely Obamacare, the Secretary’s willingness to engage with the Committee is a welcome improvement.”

Tags Chris Murphy Jay Rockefeller John Cornyn John McCain Kathleen Sebelius Lamar Alexander Orrin Hatch

The Hill has removed its comment section, as there are many other forums for readers to participate in the conversation. We invite you to join the discussion on Facebook and Twitter.

See all Hill.TV See all Video

Most Popular

Load more


See all Video