WASHINGTON — President Obama named White House budget director Sylvia Mathews Burwell to take over the implementation of the Affordable Care Act on Friday, saying there was "no manager as experienced and competent" to run the next phase of his signature domestic program.
"Sylvia was a rock, a steady hand on the wheel" as the administration dealt with the government shutdown last year, Obama told a crowd gathered in the White House Rose Garden for the announcement. "Once the government was allowed to reopen, Sylvia was vital to winning the two-year budget agreement that put an end to these manufactured crises that we had seen here in Washington so that we could keep our full focus on growing the economy and creating new jobs and expanding opportunity for everybody who's seeking opportunity."
Burwell's confirmation hearings to head the Department of Health and Human Services are likely to be boisterous, however, as Republicans use it to take the opportunity to dissect the healthcare law’s shortcomings and focus on potential problems in the implementation. The healthcare law, known popularly as Obamacare, is shaping up to be one of the most prominent themes of the 2014 election cycle.
But Burwell has already won some GOP support. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) complimented her as an able leader, albeit for a program he would like to repeal. Even without Republican support, Burwell is certain to be confirmed by Senate Democrats under new filibuster rules that require a simple majority.
Burwell's nomination follows the resignation of Kathleen Sebelius, who ran the agency for a five-year period that included the planning and launch of the health law's new online insurance marketplaces last fall. The disastrous start of the federal portal threatened the viability of Obamacare and now endangers Democrats who supported it as they face reelection in November.
Although the HealthCare.gov website has been fixed and 7.5 million people have enrolled in coverage through the state and federal websites, uncertainty about the administration's ability to implement the law still dogs the program in its critical first year.
Advisors to the president say he is putting his best organizational player into the position. A veteran of the Clinton administration, Burwell served as head of two major philanthropic organizations before joining the Obama administration. She graduated with honors from Harvard University and holds a bachelor's degree in philosophy, politics and economics from Oxford University, where she was a Rhodes Scholar.
In a year marked by contentious battles over other nominations, Burwell was confirmed, 96-0, to her current post last April, a fact that Democrats hope will smooth not only the confirmation process, but also the Obamacare debate.
"She starts out from a very high place in terms of support on the Hill," said a Democratic leadership aide. "Obviously HHS is a different job, but it's pretty hard to walk away from a unanimous vote."
Though not a regular presence on Capitol Hill, Burwell has worked with lawmakers because her department has to approve agency rules and regulations. The aide, who requested anonymity to candidly discuss the situation, also noted that Burwell was a point person during the government shutdown last October, when the Office of Management and Budget assumed a "quarterback level" position.
Appearing with the president for the announcement on Friday, Burwell said she was excited about the nomination to "carry on the important work" at Health and Human Services.
Also in the Rose Garden was Sebelius, whom the president praised for her devotion to the cause of healthcare reform. He predicted she would go down in history for holding the position when the United States decided that quality, affordable healthcare was a right.
Under her leadership, Obama said, the Department of Health and Human Services righted the healthcare marketplaces, "got it fixed, got the job done, and the final score speaks for itself."
[For the Record, April 11, 10:50 a.m.: An earlier headline on this post misspelled Sylvia Burwell's last name as Burrell.]