(Bloomberg) — Sylvia Mathews Burwell, President Barack Obama’s choice to be his next secretary of Health and Human Services, brings experience in budgeting and management and one other important qualification: proven ability to get confirmed by a divided U.S. Senate.
Obama plans today to name Burwell, currently the director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), to succeed Kathleen Sebelius, who has been under attack by Republicans for the fumbled start of the president’s signature health-care law.
The switch now means that Burwell’s confirmation hearings will be held amid campaigning for the midterm congressional elections in which the law, known as Obamacare, is a prime target for Republicans.
When Obama nominated Burwell last year as his budget director, she went before the Senate as Obama and Republicans were squaring off in another battle: raising the federal debt limit and dealing with the automatic budget cuts known as sequestration.
She was confirmed on a 96-0 vote.
Even so, any Senate hearing for Sebelius’s successor will be “bruising” said Jim Manley, a former top aide to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat.
“Republicans think that they’ve seized on a winning narrative when it comes to Obamacare,” Manley said in a telephone interview. “They’ll be bound and determined to make as much hay out of a confirmation process as they can as they try to put the program in the worst possible light.”
While Burwell’s previous experience in the confirmation process will help, “I’m not so sure she can expect to get the numbers for confirmation that she got for OMB director,” he said. “I assume it will be much more partisan this time.”
Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Senate Minority Leader, said in an e-mail that Burwell’s nomination should be “the start of a candid conversation about Obamacare’s short- comings and the need to protect Medicare for today’s seniors, their children and their grandchildren.”
Burwell, 48, is familiar with the territory. She was deputy director of the OMB near the end of the Clinton administration, another time when government control was divided and the partisanship was intense.
Burwell has acknowledged that the difficulties she faces in today’s partisan climate are greater than in the 1990s.