Republicans want Kathleen Sebelius out. Don’t bet on that happening.

October 23, 2013

A growing chorus of Republicans is calling for Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to go amid the problematic rollout of HealthCare.gov.

It's almost certainly not going to happen. There are three main reasons why.


(Jason Reed/Reuters)

First is the reality that the more Republicans demand it, the less likely Obama is to give it to them. Doing so would project weakness and surrender and imply that the GOP criticism over the problems with the new health-care law's rollout are justified. And the president simply isn't going to do that.

From Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus to Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) to Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), Republicans have been piling on. If Sebelius stepped down tomorrow, either voluntarily or at the request of the president, the GOP would claim they successfully ramped up pressure on the White House to act. And it would be hard for Obama to argue against that proposition. He's not about to hand them a victory on a silver platter.

The second reason it's not likely to happen is the process of replacing Sebelius would be contentious. Obama would have to nominate someone, and the Senate would have to confirm that individual. That's a Senate Republican's dream. Obama would be inviting a potentially noisy and difficult process, and there's little reason to believe it would be anything but uncomfortable for the White House. The absolute last thing Obama needs right now is another fight on the health-care front. By stepping down, Sebelius would virtually guarantee one.

The third reason Sebelius isn't likely to step down is it would run counter to the White House's message that the technical glitches that have plagued the health-care Web site are temporary roadblocks on the road to much higher quality health care in America as a result of the Affordable Care Act.

"Let me remind everybody that the Affordable Care Act is not just a Web site.  It's much more," Obama said earlier this week.

You don't fire someone as high up as Sebelius and at the same time seek to downplay the problems the health-care law has faced. That's a message muddle the White House is too smart to fall into.

It's possible that the White House may feel that heads need to roll, but it's far likelier that it would be personnel on lower tiers facing dismissal. It was just last week that White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said that Sebelius has the "full confidence" of Obama.

Sure, Sebelius hasn't done herself many favors. Her appearance on "The Daily Show" earlier this month was not exactly on message. ("It started a little rockier than we'd like," she said of the insurance exchanges.) And her interview with CNN Tuesday wasn't much better. (Sebelius said Obama didn't know HealthCare.gov was experiencing glitches before it launched.)

But when the alternative is worse -- and in this case it's much, much worse for Obama -- the status quo suddenly doesn't look so bad.

Sean Sullivan has covered national politics for The Washington Post since 2012.
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