Senate Republicans showed a little more enthusiasm in pushing their anti-Obamacare talking points during a confirmation hearing Wednesday for the next Health and Human Services secretary, but the end result was the same: Sylvia Mathews Burwell looks comfortably on her way to heading the agency.
The GOPers on the Senate Finance Committee showed more zeal than their counterparts on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee who questioned the HHS nominee last week. They harped on concerns about the health care law consistently, and Burwell faced the toughest questions of her confirmation so far from Sen. John Thune (R-SD).
Thune pressed Burwell on what Republicans have called a ‘carve-out’ for labor unions that they say allows unions to avoid a re-insurance fee. He inquired if the policy would force others to pay more. When Burwell’s answer wasn’t to Thune’s satisfaction, he let her know it.
“That’s simple math,” he said. “I think the answer is yes, and I’d like to hear you say yes.”
When Burwell gave the same answer that she gave to many other questions, saying that she hoped to better understand the issue if she is confirmed and that the administration is working to implement the law as sensibly as it can, Thune shook his head.
“That’s theory. This is mathematics,” he said. “Are people going to pay more? The answer is yes.”
It typified the more substantive, if still somewhat subdued, Republican tone during Burwell’s second confirmation hearing — which followed a widespread observation among the media that the GOP had declined to make much fuss during her first hearing last week.
Ranking member Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) decided to debut a bill aimed at Obamacare on the day of Burwell’s hearing. The legislation would require any state that tried to build its own Obamacare website, but failed and switched to the federal HealthCare.gov, to repay the federal grants it received.
“Could you give me and the American taxpayers a public commitment today that HHS will not give any more dollars to those of failed exchanges for more failed experiences?” Hatch asked, and Burwell said that she would use “the full extent of the law” if there was evidence of malfeasance.
Hatch and other senators emphasized two other favored points throughout the hearing: The Obama administration’s alleged unresponsiveness to their oversight and a pattern of supposed lawlessness in making “unilateral” changes to the law. They also delved into less high-profile policy issues, like the law’s medical-loss ratio policy and Medicare Advantage cuts that Republicans have railed against.
Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) joked that another top health official, Marilyn Tavenner, “seems to have gone into the witness protection program” since she appeared before the committee during HealthCare.gov’s disastrous launch. He then took a shot at the “lawless” behavior of the White House, the recent subject of a Ted Cruz release.
“Do you think it is possible for you to change the by any-means-necessary culture at HHS that some of us in Congress view as bordering on lawless?” he said.
But considering that Sen. Tom Corburn (R-OK) introduced Burwell with his full endorsement, the outcome doesn’t appear in doubt. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), who chairs the committee, said that he expects to report Burwell’s nomination to the full Senate after committee members had the opportunity to submit additional questions to her by 6 p.m. Thursday.
And Cruz’s tease that Burwell’s confirmation could be an opportunity to try to repeal Obamacare looks even more disconnected from reality than it did a month ago.