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Will the change at HHS help the Democrats?

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(Bloomberg) – Kathleen Sebelius is leaving her post as secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) months ahead of the November elections.

Democrats are hoping her departure will show the Obama administration is responding to criticism of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) exchange program rollout and reduce the amount of PPACA-related hostility coming at Democrats today.

Democrats are also hoping the timing of her exit will help reduce Republicans’ ability to use attacks on PPACA in the fall elections, by having the Senate confirmation hearings for Sebelius’s likely replacement – Sylvia Mathews Burwell – take place in the late spring or early summer.

Obama administration officials have noted that Burwell, 48, was confirmed to her current post, as director of the Office of Management and Budget, just one year ago, by a 96-0 Senate vote.

“It will help the confirmation process that Sylvia just recently went through it,” said Jim Manley, a former top aide to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. ‘‘I still expect it to be nothing short of brutal.’’

Republican leaders seized on Sebelius’s departure to blast PPACA.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said in a statement that he hopes Burwell’s confirmation hearings will be ‘‘the start of a candid conversation about Obamacare’s shortcomings.”

Thirty-six Senate seats will be up for grabs in November: 21 occupied by Democrats and 15 by Republicans. Most of the races rated as competitive by non-partisan analysts are in states currently in the hands of Democrats. 

Chris Lehane, a communications adviser in the Clinton administration, said Sebelius “has become a lightning rod.”

Sebelius is leaving as the administration is reporting that the PPACA exchange “qualified health plans” (QHPs) are on track to have 7.5 million enrollees — more than the number projected by the Congressional Budget Office.

Now “it’s not as easy to use her as a foil in the fall because she’s hit her mark, and she won’t be there,” Lehane said.

Republican pollster Bill McInturff said he expects both Sebelius’s resignation and confirmation hearings on her successor will have “zero impact” on the political climate going in to the November congressional elections.

“Almost all cabinet secretaries are generally unknown to the public and the coming and goings don’t matter,” McInturff said. “What matters is whether the Obamacare program works, not who is the secretary.”

–With assistance from Julianna Goldman in Washington.

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