Republican senators were downright cordial to Sylvia Mathews Burwell, President Obama's pick to be the next secretary of Health and Human Services, at her nomination hearing Thursday. It was a far cry from some of the tense moments that outgoing HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius faced during her visits to the Hill.
If Burwell is confirmed to lead HHS, she'll be in charge of a sprawling bureaucracy, with continued implementation of the Affordable Care Act as one of her biggest challenges. Republicans still hate the law and offered their views during the Senate Health Committee hearing, but their broad support for Burwell to lead the agency seemed like a lock.
In fact, the hearing was pretty much a snoozer.
Burwell was perhaps the safest pick that the White House could imagine. She was confirmed as budget director on a 96-0 vote last year. She has vast managerial experience, and as a health-care outsider, her hands are pretty much clean from last year's shaky start on the implementation of Obamacare.
During the hearing, she faced questions about the health-care law delays, problems with HealthCare.gov and the affordability of coverage, though as budget director Burwell has enough distance from all of those that Republican lawmakers couldn't pin the problems on her.
As for the prospect of future Obamacare delays, Burwell avoided directly answering some questions about how HHS would implement the law. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) specifically asked whether the Obama administration would again extend the availability of old health plans.
"I think any actions that are taken should be viewed in implementing against the core goals," Burwell said, stressing the need to transition into the new insurance system under the Affordable Care Act.
But the bipartisan support was obvious from the start, when Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) introduced Burwell to the committee.
"Regardless of my objections to the Affordable Care Act, the Department of Health and Human Services needs competent leadership in the position of secretary," McCain said. "I believe Ms. Burwell has the qualifications to run HHS." The senator then took a slight dig at Sebelius, saying he believes that Burwell will work better with Congress "than her predecessor."
The HELP Committee doesn't actually get a vote on Burwell's confirmation. That will come from the Senate Finance Committee, which is expected to hold its own hearing soon.