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Obama taps Sebelius for health secretary

A White House source says Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius is President Barack Obama's choice for secretary of health and human services.
Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius with Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter Jr. during the 2009 National Governors Association winter meeting in Washington last week. Luis M. Alvarez / AP
/ Source: NBC News and news services

Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius is President Barack Obama's choice for secretary of health and human services, a White House source said Saturday.

The source, who was not authorized to speak on the record, said Obama will formally announce the nomination on Monday.

The Sebelius pick caps a week in which Obama underscored his resolve to pass a major health care overhaul this year. He issued a challenge to Congress in his speech Tuesday, and followed up Thursday with a budget that requested an eye-popping $634 billion over 10 years, which the administration called a "down payment" on coverage for all. This week, Obama will host lawmakers of both parties and representatives of major interest groups, from insurers to drug companies to consumers, at a White House summit on health care reform.

Sebelius, 60, is seen as a solid choice to head HHS because as a governor responsible for the Medicaid program in Kansas, she faced the pressure of rising health care costs directly, and saw how hard it is to expand coverage, particularly in bad economic times. She is also familiar with the insurance industry, a key interest group in the health care debate. Before becoming governor, she served as insurance commissioner, and her fellow state commissioners selected her to be national president of their association.

Fewer D.C. connections
However, Sebelius lacks the deep Washington connections of former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, Obama's first pick for the job. Daschle, who withdrew after disclosing he had failed to pay $140,000 in taxes and interest, was on a first name basis with most of the members of the Senate. And it's in the Senate where many expect Obama's health care effort to succeed or fail.

Originally, Daschle was to hold both the position of HHS secretary and a top White House post directing the health reform effort. An administration official said Saturday the White House position will not go to Sebelius, but will be filled by another person.

Sebelius had been seen the leading candidate for HHS for several weeks and word of her appointment was greeted favorably by both those who favor the expansion of health care coverage and health insurers.

"Together with the president's speech to Congress, and his big health care investment in the budget, the president's appointment of Gov. Sebelius once again makes clear his intention of achieving meaningful health care reform this year," said Ron Pollack, executive director of Families USA, a liberal advocacy group that has worked for years to expand health care coverage.

"Gov. Sebelius is the right person to move the president's health care agenda forward," said Robert Zirkelbach, a spokesman for America's Health Insurance Plan, the major trade group representing insurers. "She has a wealth of experience of health care issues and has a legislative history of working with both sides of the aisle."

Opposed by abortion foes
Abortion foes strongly oppose Sebelius because she once had a reception attended by a late-term abortion provider who now faces criminal charges. The anti-abortion group Operation Rescue, headquartered in Wichita, called Sebelius "unfit to serve."

Democrats say there was never any doubt that Obama would appoint an HHS secretary who supports abortion rights.

Sebelius will be subject to confirmation by the Democratic-controlled Senate.

The Kansas governor was an early Obama supporter and a finalist for Obama's ticket before he picked Joe Biden for vice president. During the general election campaign, she spent 24 days stumping for Obama in 16 states, including key battlegrounds such as Colorado, Florida, Indiana, North Carolina Ohio and Pennsylvania. Some Democrats in Kansas believe her endorsement of Obama over Hillary Rodham Clinton in January 2008 helped boost him to an overwhelming victory in the state's Democratic caucuses.

Some Democrats have said she has built a solid and even close relationship with Obama, gaining his trust.

Her name had been floated for several Cabinet posts, but she removed herself from consideration in December, citing Kansas' budget problems that needed her attention.

She comes from a strong political family. Her father, John Gilligan, was the governor of Ohio in 1971-75, making them the only father-daughter governors in U.S. history.

Winning in a GOP-leaning state
National party circles have buzzed about Sebelius since she won her first term as governor in GOP-leaning Kansas in 2002, aided by her image as a no-nonsense administrator and consumer advocate. Party leaders have portrayed her as someone who has been able to attract support from moderate Republicans and independent voters.

She is routinely described as a success at finding bipartisan solutions and has long said addressing rising health care costs and making sure more people have coverage are top priorities for her as governor.

But she's often found her ambitions frustrated by Republican legislators who are wary of expanding government and prefer measures that help people find private insurance.

Yet legislators in both parties agree the state has made some progress on health care since Sebelius became governor in January 2003.

The state has expanded cancer screenings, allowed more Kansans can keep their health insurance up to 18 months after leaving their jobs and granted income tax deductions that helped some Kansans lower their insurance costs.

It also has increased funding for "safety net" clinics, expanded state medical and dental coverage for pregnant women and started no-interest loans to help small businesses form associations to provide health plans for employees.

However, Christian Morgan, the Kansas GOP's executive director, said Sebelius deserves no credit for whatever reforms have occurred in the state. He said she'll leave behind "a long string of broken promises."

He also said she has a record of working to expand government programs instead of trying to improve the private insurance market, which he called "a frightening indication of what is to come."

"Any sort of health insurance-health care policy has come from the Legislature or other outside bureaucracies," he said.