Abortion fight stalls Obama nominee

Abortion fight stalls Obama nominee
© Greg Nash

Democrats are crying foul over the Republican blockade of a top Health and Human Services (HHS) nominee who has been ensnared in a dispute over abortion.

Mary Wakefield’s nomination to be deputy HHS secretary, the department’s No. 2 position, was once noncontroversial, but Republicans on the Senate Finance Committee dropped her from a panel session last week to approve nominees after objections.


Republicans are delaying action on Wakefield’s nomination because they say HHS is dragging its feet on an investigation into whether California violated federal law by requiring all health insurers in the state to cover abortions, sources say.   

“I think she’s very qualified, and she shouldn’t have her nomination caught up in yet another anti-abortion discussion,” Sen. Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenDemocrats seek new ways to expand Medicaid in holdout states Democrats introduce resolution apologizing to LGBT community for government discrimination Lawmakers rally around cyber legislation following string of attacks MORE (Ore.), the Finance Committee’s top Democrat, told The Hill. 

Finance Chairman Orrin HatchOrrin Grant HatchDrug prices are declining amid inflation fears The national action imperative to achieve 30 by 30 Financial market transactions should not be taxed or restricted MORE (R-Utah) acknowledged that there are obstacles to moving forward with the nomination but declined to discuss the reasons. Asked if Wakefield would ever get out of committee, Hatch said: “It’s a problem. I don’t know.”

At issue is a California agency’s decision in 2014 to require all health insurers in the state to cover abortions. Republicans say that order was a clear violation of the federal Weldon Amendment, which prevents discrimination against health insurers who decline to cover abortions.  

The HHS Office for Civil Rights, which is charged with enforcing the Weldon Amendment, said in December 2014 that it had opened an investigation into the state of California’s actions after the California Catholic Conference filed a complaint.

More than a year later, the investigation is not complete. 

HHS Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell said under questioning at a congressional hearing in February that her department had moved too slowly in the investigation. 

“I am not satisfied with our speed,” she said, while noting that while the probe is still open, she could not discuss any further details. 

Wyden said Wakefield, who is currently serving in an acting capacity as deputy HHS secretary, should not be blamed for the delay.

“She has nothing to do with [it], no past trouble on any of those issues,” he said. 

Wakefield’s nomination was once without controversy, and she received praise from both sides of the aisle at her confirmation hearing before the Finance Committee in February. 

“We’ll see what we can do to move these nominations along,” Hatch said at the hearing, speaking to Wakefield and three other nominees for tax and Social Security positions. “But as far as I’m concerned, you’re all very well qualified for these positions and I intend to work for you and with you, so we hope we can get that done as soon as possible.”

But when the Finance Committee held a session last week, it approved the three nominees and left out Wakefield. 

Democrats on the committee say that in more than two decades, no deputy HHS secretary nominee has gone longer without a committee vote than Wakefield. 

Burwell said at a congressional hearing in February that despite the fact that she currently serves in an acting capacity, the Senate’s delay in confirming Wakefield was hurting her ability to run the department. 

“Right now, HHS is 25 percent of the federal budget,” Burwell said. “At HHS, it’s over $1 trillion that we are managing. There is only one deputy.”

“My ability to run the department well is about my ability to actually have people in place,” she added. 

Rep. Leonard Lance (R-N.J.), though, raised concerns that the administration could be violating the 1998 Federal Vacancies Reform Act by having people serve in an acting basis while they are awaiting confirmation. 

Sen. Chuck GrassleyChuck Grassley 64 percent of Iowans say 'time for someone else' to hold Grassley's Senate seat: poll Five takeaways on the Supreme Court's Obamacare decision On The Money: Yellen, Powell brush off inflation fears | Fed keeps rates steady, upgrades growth projections MORE (R-Iowa) put a hold on Wakefield in February for a separate reason, over questions he had posed to HHS about audits it performed on government-sponsored fetal tissue programs. His office said Wednesday that Grassley’s questions had been answered and the hold had been lifted. 

Wakefield is seen in particular as a rural health expert after her experience as an associate dean at the University of North Dakota’s medical school.

Hatch declined to discuss the reasoning for the delay in her nomination, saying, “She’s, as far as I can see, a nice person.”