Sebelius's Political Skills, Experience Win Plaudits
But Governor's Modest Health-Care Victories Give Pause to Some
Monday, March 2, 2009; Page A04
Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius has never lost an election, even as a Democrat in a Republican-dominated state, something analysts attribute to cool competence, a lifelong education in politics and a knack for reaching across the political divide.
But even with that record, Sebelius has been mostly frustrated in her attempts to expand health-care coverage in Kansas. Today, President Obama is scheduled to formally introduce her at a White House ceremony as his nominee for secretary of health and human services, putting Sebelius in the midst of the growing debate over revamping the nation's health-care system.
"She has a clear, substantive grasp of the issue," said Kenneth E. Thorpe, a professor of health policy at Emory University who was an adviser to President Bill Clinton. "She also understands the politics. She has been trying to do health-care reform in a very difficult political environment."
As governor, Sebelius has tried twice to raise Kansas's cigarette tax to expand medical coverage. Both times she was thwarted by Republican legislators, who objected to the tax increases and wanted a more market-based solution.
"She is a Democratic governor from a Republican state. She had to be pretty competent to survive that. But health care was a disappointing exercise," said Edmund F. Haislmaier, a senior research fellow in health policy studies at the Heritage Foundation who has worked with legislative leaders who opposed Sebelius in Kansas. "This is kind of an outline of what you are going to see play out nationally. People on both sides want the same goal, but they go at it differently," Haislmaier said.
Still, Sebelius has enjoyed some victories on the issue. She was successful in having Kansas join a multistate consortium that allowed Kansans to order prescription drugs from Canada, Britain and Ireland, often at a lower price than in the United States. She also has added tens of thousands of children from low-income households to state health programs. And as Kansas's elected insurance commissioner, Sebelius achieved national recognition when she blocked the sale of Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Kansas, which she was convinced would raise premiums.
Many Democrats applauded her nomination, saying her experience could prove invaluable. "I'm particularly pleased to hear of her selection because she brings such solid experience to the position," said Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, who has set a goal of swiftly overhauling health care. "Passing comprehensive health-care reform is an absolute imperative this year, and as a former insurance commissioner, Governor Sebelius really gets what needs to be done," Baucus said.
Politics has been a constant in Sebelius's life. Her father, John J. Gilligan, a liberal Democrat, served as a congressman and as governor of Ohio. Sebelius studied at Trinity College in Washington, where she met her husband, Gary Sebelius, whose father was a congressman from western Kansas.
The couple settled in Topeka, where Kathleen Sebelius worked as a special assistant to the state's secretary of corrections and attended graduate school at the University of Kansas, before becoming executive director of the Kansas Trial Lawyers Association. She successfully ran for the state legislature in 1986 and was elected insurance commissioner eight years later.
Sebelius was elected governor in 2002 and was reelected in 2006, and along the way she earned a reputation as a capable manager and a moderate who works well with Republicans. She was mentioned as a possible Democratic vice presidential candidate in 2004 and 2008. Her name was floated for several Cabinet posts, although she expressed no interest then in joining the administration.
As HHS secretary, Sebelius would take charge of an agency with 65,000 employees responsible for public health, food safety, scientific research, and the administration of the Medicare and Medicaid programs, which serve 90 million Americans. The financial health of the entitlement programs is yet another worry confronting the administration, which has vowed to rein in the runaway costs of those programs, which make up the lion's share of the department's $700 billion budget.
Sebelius would fill a job that had been slated to go to former senator Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.), who withdrew from consideration over his failure to pay $146,000 in back taxes and interest until he had been nominated for the job.