President Barack Obama's pick to be the nation's new health secretary faced some pointed questions Wednesday over the health care law, but she also won praise as Republican senators largely passed up the chance for an all-out assault on "Obamacare."
Sylvia Mathews Burwell, the White House budget director, pledged under questioning from Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, to try to recoup any federal taxpayer dollars that have been misused on failed health law sign-up websites in states including Maryland and Oregon. She promised to try her best to be responsive to senators who complained that her predecessor, Kathleen Sebelius, was not.
She also defended the administration's record of making unilateral changes to the Affordable Care Act, such as delaying the requirement for employers to offer health coverage or pay fines. "What was intended was trying to implement the law in a better way that's common sense," Burwell said.
But Burwell, 48, got largely cordial treatment during an appearance before the Senate Finance Committee, just as occurred last week before the Senate's health committee — defying predictions that her nomination hearings to become secretary of Health and Human Services would turn into an election-year trial of Obamacare.
The Finance Committee should vote on her nomination next week, said Chairman Ron Wyden, D-Ore. The full Senate could vote as early as this month and there is little doubt she will be confirmed.
Burwell was approved for her current post 96-0 by the Senate last year. She was seen as a safe choice by Obama not least because of her popularity on both sides of the aisle.
Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., introduced Burwell to the committee and was effusive, calling her "remarkably responsible" and "a great listener." Hatch declared that "you have the qualifications to do the job."
But Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, warned that she would have to work to develop good relations with Congress following frustration with Sebelius, who announced her departure last month just as the health law was recovering from the disastrous initial failure of HealthCare.gov by posting better-than-expected sign-up numbers topping 8 million.
"We can be very cordial today, but if you want to change the relationship your department has with Congress, you're going to have to be willing to break the 'by any means necessary' mindset the department has had for the past five years," Grassley said.
"I take the issues very seriously," Burwell responded. "I actually hope that there will be actually direct communication if there are concerns."
The large hearing room was less than half full, which Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., said was evidence that Burwell's nomination was widely supported.
It also pointed to a larger dynamic in Congress, where Republican attacks on Obamacare have receded in recent weeks. Polling shows the law remains unpopular, but the public is signing up.
House Republicans have not recently scheduled a vote to repeal the health law, even while insisting they remain committed to doing so after more than 50 votes to repeal or dismember it. Other issues including the investigation into the attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya, have taken center stage instead. Meanwhile House Republicans are still working on developing their own health care alternative to bring to a vote, but timing and content are uncertain.
Some Democrats see indications that Republicans have begun to accept that the president's health law has taken root.
"What I think director Burwell showed today is the ability to bring people together and start finding ways to build on the law as it stands," Wyden said after the hearing.