WASHINGTON — The Senate on Tuesday confirmed Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius as Health and Human Services secretary.
The 65-31 vote places her at the tip of the spear of the Obama administration's efforts to deal with a sudden, worrisome spread of swine flu and its campaign to overhaul the nation's health care system.
As a sign of the importance that the White House puts on her post, Sebelius flew back to Washington from Topeka and took the oath of office in a quick Oval Office ceremony Tuesday night.
She then immediately went to the White House Situation Room for a briefing about the flu outbreak by John Brennan, the assistant to the president for Homeland Security.
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President Barack Obama said he was "thrilled" to have Sebelius in his administration.
"We wanted to swear her in right away because we've got a lot of health challenges," he said. "We need all hands on deck. I expect her to hit the ground running. She is the right person at the right time for the job."
The approval of Sebelius, a Democrat, drew quick praise from key players in that effort, including the insurance and pharmaceutical industries. Both were vocal opponents when the Clinton administration tried to tackle health care in the 1990s.
"Governor Sebelius is the right person for the job," said Democratic Sen. Max Baucus of Montana, the chairman of the Finance Committee. "She has political experience, determination and a bipartisan work ethic to get the job done. She knows the nuts and bolts of the health care system and she's been a governor so she knows how to work with Democrats and Republicans."
Among Sebelius' Republican backers were her two home-state senators, Pat Roberts, a longtime family friend, and Sam Brownback, who plans to run for Kansas governor next year.
Brownback, an ardent opponent of abortion, stuck to his pledge to support Sebelius, who favors abortion rights, even after she vetoed a bill last week that would've restricted late-term abortions.
In a statement after the vote, Brownback cited a "long tradition of bipartisanship" on home-state nominees. He also said that while they "fundamentally disagree" on some issues, it was important to have someone leading the agency in light of the swine flu outbreak.
Sebelius' nomination ran into some bumpy spots since President Barack Obama named her nine weeks ago. It came to light that she owed nearly $8,000 in back taxes and also received political contributions from a doctor who performs late-term abortions.
While conservative activists outside Capitol Hill tried to drum up opposition, her hearings produced no fireworks, and the outcome of her nomination never really seemed to be in doubt.
She drew bipartisan support for her grasp of the complexities of reforming healthcare, stemming from her two terms as Kansas insurance commissioner.
"This secretary is going to be charged with fulfilling this president's idea that all Americans should have health coverage," said Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana.
Critics objected to her pro-abortion rights views and her association with George Tiller, who operates an abortion clinic in Wichita that performs late-term abortions. He was also a political contributor.
"That's a nonstarter with me, not because I dislike her," said Oklahoma Republican Sen. Tom Coburn, a doctor. "I think she's a wonderful lady, but I think she lacks part of the moral clarity that is required to lead this nation into the future. I have no doubt that she will be approved today, so I mark it as another sign on our way to oblivion as a nation."
Opponents also were concerned that Obama administration policies could lead to health care rationing. They also cited her support for a government-run option to provide competition for the private insurance market.
"How in the world can the private market compete when the federal government comes in and sets prices?" asked Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas.
Sebelius fills the last vacancy in Obama's cabinet. She was his second choice after former Sen. Tom Daschle withdrew over tax problems.
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