The Senate on Wednesday confirmed Katherine Archuleta as the government’s next personnel chief on a partisan vote that underscored Republicans’ continuing opposition to President Obama’s health-care law.
Archuleta’s nomination was embroiled for months in a dispute over how the Affordable Care Act treats Capitol Hill aides and members of Congress. Some Republicans rose on the Senate floor to explain their no votes as a protest against what they called the law’s special treatment for Hill employees, whose health insurance premiums are still subsidized by the government.
The 62 to 35 vote, with eight Republicans joining Democrats to approve, was the first time since the Office of Personnel Management was created in 1978 that a nominee to run the agency was confirmed with a recorded vote.
“I’m not voting against the nominee as an individual,” Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) said. “I’m voting against the agency itself. What’s good for the American people should be good for Congress. What’s good for Congress should be good for the American people.”
Archuleta, 64, a Colorado native, was the national political director for Obama’s reelection campaign and will rank among his administration’s prominent Latinas. She served as chief of staff to former Labor secretary Hilda Solis and had positions at the Energy and Transportation departments. She has long been a force in Colorado’s Hispanic community.
Archuleta replaces John Berry, whose term expired in April and who is now U.S. ambassador to Australia. Elaine Kaplan will leave the agency as acting director to become a judge at the Court of Federal Claims.
OPM oversees the health-care system for federal workers. The agency was required to rule on whether the government would continue to contribute to premiums for lawmakers and their staffs, even those that are covered by plans offered through the health-care exchanges that took effect Oct. 1.
In August, OPM said the government would continue to pay the employer contribution at the same rate as if members were still on the federal plan.
But that was two months after Archuleta’s confirmation hearing, and the agency had not said how it would rule. Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) put a hold on her nomination, which he later lifted.
Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) said before Wednesday’s vote that a continued government subsidy for the premiums of lawmakers and their staffs is “flat out illegal” because the law’s original language did not call for it.
“You go to the exchanges and you get no special treatment, no exemptions, no subsidies,” Vitter said. “What Washington passes onto America, it lives with itself.”
Vitter’s proposal to require members of Congress to pay the full cost of their health care became a point of negotiation in talks to end the government shutdown, but was ultimately dropped.
Archuleta has said her priorities include modernizing the agency’s information technology network and bringing in new talent to revamp an inefficient, paper-based system for processing lagging retirement claims.
She pledged at her confirmation hearing to create a plan in her first 100 days to overhaul the agency’s computer system, particularly in the retirement area, to cut into a claims backlog that has persisted for years. She said she also plans to hire a chief technology officer to move the plan forward.
She also said her priorities include recruiting and developing “top talent” and inspiring a younger generation of federal workers. She has described her leadership style as “holding individuals accountable” for their work and said she would not hesitate to weed out poor performers.