The GOP Confronts An Obamacare Dilemma While Replacing Sebelius

May 7, 2014 6:00 a.m.

Nobody, even Republicans themselves, seems sure how the GOP is going to approach the confirmation of Sylvia Mathews Burwell as the next secretary of Health and Human Services. The fireworks, or perhaps lack thereof, are set to begin on Thursday at the first of two Senate committee hearings.

Will they raise all hell, obstructing the process as much as they can and using Burwell’s confirmation to relive Obamacare’s many alleged terrors? Or will they take a more restrained tack, getting their talking points across without blowing too much smoke, a recognition that the politics of the law might be changing?

It seems to depend on who you ask.

Within three days, Politico and Reuters published two previews of the confirmation hearings that seemed diametrically opposed: Politico concluded the long-expected showdown was “looking more and more like a dud.” Reuters countered that GOPers are “relishing the chance” to push their anti-Obamacare message.

Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC), a member of both of the committees that Burwell will face, seemed more concerned in an interview with Politico with how she planned to handle public health issues than re-litigating Obamacare. But then a GOP spokeswoman told Reuters the hearings would “focus on all of the Obamacare-related disasters.”

It’s a dichotomy that has threaded all of the lead-up to Thursday’s hearing. Burwell is certain to be confirmed in a post-nuclear Senate; the only question is how uncomfortable will Republicans make it. And internally, the GOP seems to be a little uncertain how loudly it should bellow as Obamacare enjoys a string of positive headlines that started last month.

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One Senate GOP aide, dismissive of the White House talking point that Burwell was confirmed unanimously last year to head the Office of Management and Budget, hinted at a bureaucratic brawl. “Burwell was confirmed unanimously, sure, but to play a different sport altogether,” the aide told TPM last month.

But another, also talking to TPM last month, was more reserved: “I think she’ll get confirmed pretty easily,” the second Republican aide said.

No cohesive strategy has emerged. Several members of Louisiana’s congressional delegation have asked their senators to put a hold on Burwell’s confirmation in protest, as first reported by Roll Call and confirmed by TPM. But another likely source of instigation, the Texas delegation, which already has Sen. Ted Cruz at its side, hasn’t had any discussions about doing the same, aides told TPM.

All will be clear at Thursday’s hearing, and any hearing in front of senators eager for good tape is sure to have contentious moments. But it seems as likely as not that the GOP will take the more subdued road on Obamacare, a strategy that would have seemed unthinkable just a few months ago.

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