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How Kathleen Sebelius may have sealed her own fate

Give Kathleen Sebelius this: She's a good soldier.

Here are four of the top key moments from Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius's testimony before the House Energy and Commerce Committee Wednesday. (Sarah Parnass/The Washington Post)

Time and time again during a hearing on the problems with the rollout of Obamacare, the Health and Human Services Secretary put the blame squarely on herself for the issues with the Web site and refused to throw those lower or higher than her on the political food chain under the bus. (Mixed metaphor alert!)

"Hold me accountable for the debacle," Sebelius said. "I'm responsible." Under pressure from Mississippi Rep. Gregg Harper to acknowledge that President Obama ultimately bears responsibility for the problems with the Web site, Sebelius repeatedly insisted he was not.  She defended the president's claim -- that has since been proven to be misleading at best -- that if people liked their insurance plan, they could keep it under Obamacare. She refused to name names of the contractors who assured her that the problems with the Web site would never be this bad. She rejected a request from Texas Rep. Michael Burgess (R) to call on Gary Cohen, head of the Center for Consumer Information and Insurance Oversight, to resign.

In doing so, Sebelius did two things:

1. She won the undying loyalty of many Democrats -- including those in the White House -- for taking all on the incoming without trying to deflect blame. Remember that part of the job of a Cabinet official is to be the shield for the president.

2. If she wasn't already (and she probably was), Sebelius became the face of Obamacare for every single person who doesn't like the law.

On the first point, Obama, like all politicians at very high levels, values loyalty very highly. And the fact that Sebelius stood strong -- at least in terms of the blame game -- under a barrage of criticism from Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Committee should endear her to the president.

But, but, but. By bear-hugging responsibility for the problems with the Web site rollout, Sebelius also set herself up perfectly to be the sacrificial lamb if/when Obama and his senior team decide that a public move must be made to show he understands the depth of the problem and is working to deal with it.

To be clear, that day may never come. Obama loathes the political chattering class and is resistant to making any move that is seen as being done to placate that group. And, if the Web site is fixed on the timetable that the administration has laid out, Sebelius might well get a pass.

But, after today, it's hard to imagine Obama firing some mid-level person at HHS if he decides that a sacrifice needs to be made. Sebelius is now the person who must go if a decision is made that someone must be fired.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.



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Chris Cillizza · October 30, 2013

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