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HHS Secretary Sebelius Appears Ready to Topple

November 25th 2013

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Kathleen Sebelius may become the biggest loser in the Senate's approval of filibuster reform. The Health and Human Services (HHS) secretary has kept her job despite the botched rollout of ObamaCare's insurance exchanges, but it will now be easier for Obama to replace her. After the Senate’s vote, confirming an executive-branch nominee now takes just 51 Senate votes. Some think that raises the likelihood Sebelius will soon be a former Cabinet member.

“The president's hands were previously tied,” said John Hudak, a fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution, who wrote a piece on the topic Thursday. “Now, he has more breathing room and he is able to fire whoever he wants at HHS. That's a very, very appealing approach, whether it fixes the problems with ObamaCare's rollout or not.”

The filibuster vote could also make it easier for Obama to fill the healthcare law's controversial cost-cutting board, another big advantage for the president.

Known as IPAB, the panel has no members yet is meant to submit its first proposed cuts in January. Any nominees from Obama require Senate confirmation, which is now an easier prospect.

Before Thursday’s vote, Obama’s nominees needed 60 votes to survive procedural motions. Now they need 51.

Beyond helping Obama, the change could make life easier for some of the Senate Democrats who face tough reelection contests in 2014. The chamber is controlled by 53 Democrats and two Independents who caucus with the majority party.

“Obama now has breathing room among Democrats,” Hudak said.

“He can actually let some of the Democrats who are in tough races off the hook, which has some real electoral implications for those members.”

While not directly involved in building the exchanges, Sebelius has become the public face of their problems since the federal enrollment system debuted on Oct. 1.

The former Kansas governor has been repeatedly spoofed for her efforts to promote HealthCare.gov in spite of its massive technical flaws.

Republicans are livid with her for testifying that ObamaCare's rollout was on track earlier this year.

And she's been increasingly criticized as documents reveal that her team was in chaos during the month of September, when it was trying in vain to make the site work.

Obama has hesitated to fire anyone involved in the troubled rollout, and some think he’s unlikely to replace Sebelius even with the new breathing room.

“My guess is that he's not in a mood, at this point, to blow up his team at HHS,” said Norman Ornstein, congressional scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.

He said Obama has given no signal he would have fired Sebelius already but for the difficulty of replacing her. Instead, he said, the president's focus seems to be on fixing the law's problems, and dealing with personnel issues afterwards.

The administration sought to tamp down speculation on Friday, saying that the change in Senate rules will not precipitate any ObamaCare firings.

“The president wants his team focused on improving the Affordable Care Act and on fixing HealthCare.gov,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said Friday.

“The action taken by [Senate Majority] Leader [Harry] Reid is unrelated to the Affordable Care Act.”

Obama has repeatedly expressed support for Sebelius, a fact deputy spokesman Josh Earnest emphasized on Thursday.

“There is an HHS secretary who's serving right now and is working very hard and has the full confidence of the president of the United States,” Earnest told reporters.

Some experts noted that it could be wise for the White House to wait until December to see how the federal enrollment website fares. The administration said HealthCare.gov will work for most people on Nov. 30, but it remains to be seen if officials can hit that deadline.

“Firing someone would have best been used three or four weeks ago, when the problems' scope first became clear,” Cal Jillson, a professor of political science at Southern Methodist University, recently told The Hill. “Still, even now, it could very beneficial to the administration.”

Elise Vliebeck writes for The Hill, from where this article is adapted. Mike Lillis contributed to this story.

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