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Health Secretary Nominee's Hearing Proceeds Smoothly

By Ceci Connolly
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 2, 2009 1:08 PM

Despite acknowledging an error in her taxes, Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius encountered few problems today in her confirmation hearing to be secretary of health and human services.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) said he expects Sebelius, a Democrat, to be confirmed by the full Senate before it leaves for a two-week recess this weekend.

President Obama's first choice for the Cabinet post, former Senate majority leader Thomas A. Daschle, withdrew his nomination after he paid $148,000 in back taxes, primarily on the use of a car and driver.

On Tuesday evening, Sebelius released a letter detailing minor reporting errors in her federal taxes that prompted her to pay $7,000 in back taxes. The discrepancy was not discussed in the Finance Committee session, which lasted about two hours.

Instead, lawmakers used the hearing to stake out ground on the upcoming debate over comprehensive health reform.

Baucus pressed Sebelius to commit to an idea he supports: a requirement that every American have health insurance.

Sebelius agreed that every American should be covered but did not commit to an "individual mandate." Obama, she said, "is open to all of those proposals."

In his opening statement, Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) warned that he opposes a parliamentary maneuver promoted by House Democrats that would lower the threshold for passing health legislation to just 51 votes in the Senate.

Grassley and several colleagues voiced discomfort with suggestions that legislation include an optional government-sponsored health insurance program. Conservatives worry that a public plan would set unrealistically low reimbursement rates that could undermine the private insurance market.

Sebelius, however, noted that at least 30 states include a government-sponsored health insurance option for state employees, offered "side by side" with private plans.

At the federal level, it could be "one more choice and option for American consumers," she said.

Sebelius was introduced by two Kansas Republicans -- Sen. Pat Roberts and former senator Bob Dole -- who praised her ability to work with the opposing party.

"The $64,000 question is: Can we forge a bipartisan proposal that is accessible, available, and affordable?" Dole said. "We can with steady and determined leadership, and Governor Sebelius is ready to lead us in that direction."

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