The US Senate this afternoon confirmed Kathleen Sebelius as health and human services secretary, completing President Obama's cabinet, after Democrats pointed to the swine flu crisis as showing the need for action.
She flew immediately to Washington and was quickly sworn in. Obama's remarks are below.
The 65-31 vote followed hours of debate on the Kansas governor's nomination, which had been held up by Republicans over concerns by her record on abortion, her views on a healthcare overhaul, and unpaid taxes.
Nine Republicans joined the Democratic majority in pushing Sebelius over the 60 votes she needed. They included Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine and Judd Gregg of New Hampshire.
Her backers said that her confirmation was essential now to help coordinate the government's response to the swine flu outbreak, which has been led so far by Homeland Security chief Janet Napolitano.
Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, who is helping lead the charge for a healthcare overhaul, said Sebelius's confirmation would jump-start the work. She is expected to play a key role, though not as extensive as Obama's first nominee for the job, former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, who was also supposed to be head of the White House office of healthcare reform before he withdrew over unpaid taxes.
“With the confirmation of Governor Sebelius, the commitment of the Administration and Congress to passing health care reform this year now moves into high gear," Kennedy said in a statement.
“In his first 100 days in office, President Obama has taken large steps toward putting America back on track. His leadership has produced a strong new investment in education, established the principles needed to guide the United States into a more energy efficient world, and made opportunities for national and community service far more available to all Americans. In the next 100 days, I’m confident that President Obama will have us well on the way to the landmark enactment of quality, affordable health care as a right for all Americans.”
Billy Tauzin, president and CEO of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, added his plaudits.
“Gov. Kathleen Sebelius is a wise choice to guide the President on shaping healthcare reform," he said in a statement. "Sebelius combines the vital combination of skills that it will take to accomplish this challenging job: Toughness and an intimate understanding of the healthcare challenges that face our nation during these tough economic times.
“We applaud the Finance committee’s endorsement of Sebelius and are pleased that the Senate as a whole quickly followed its lead. Clearly, achieving meaningful healthcare reform will be difficult, making it imperative for Sebelius to be confirmed in a timely manner," Tauzin added. "“It’s equally important for Congress to act rapidly to put a full-time Commissioner in place to head the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Consumers count on the FDA to help assure the safety of a myriad of products – including the life-saving anti-virals contained within the Strategic National Stockpile, which could be deployed in the event of an influenza pandemic."
"Today's confirmation of Gov. Kathleen Sebelius is a tremendous step forward in the effort to address comprehensive health care reform and in turn put our economy back on track," John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO, said in a statement.
"Gov. Sebelius is highly qualified and throughout her career, she has shown a unique ability to work with members of both parties to find solutions to pressing problems. As Governor and former health insurance commissioner of Kansas, she is a proven fighter for the rights of patients and consumers. We look forward to working with Secretary Sebelius for real solutions to the problems of working families who deserve quality and affordable health care."
Marcia Greenberger, co-president of the National Women's Law Center, applauded the Sebelius's confirmation.
“Governor Sebelius has a strong record on protecting women’s legal rights, child care and early education, and healthcare," Greenberger said in a statement. "Her stellar career and track record provide reassurance to the American public that she is highly qualified to lead HHS, and that she will make meeting the needs of women and children a priority of the Department. As health care reform moves forward, the country now has a strong HHS Secretary who understands the needs of women and their families, and can bring the particular barriers faced by women to the table."
Anti-abortion groups had marshalled their resources to oppose Sebelius, a Catholic who personally opposes abortion but who vetoed a series of abortion restrictions as governor.
Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, commended the Senate vote.
“We applaud the Senate’s vote to confirm the eminently-qualified Gov. Kathleen Sebelius to serve in this critical position,” Keenan said in a statement. “Anti-choice advocates tried every desperate trick in the book to derail her confirmation, but this vote shows that a majority of senators understand that Americans are tired of the antagonistic politics of the past. As our country faces challenges on a number of fronts, especially on the issue of affordable health care, we look forward to ensuring that women’s health and sound science are a priority, rather than the failed political maneuvering that damaged this agency during the previous Bush administration.”
Cecile Richards, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, added in a statement:
“We applaud Gov. Kathleen Sebelius’ confirmation as secretary of health and human services. She is an excellent choice to lead HHS and has a proven track record of increasing access to affordable care. As countless women and their families struggle to afford quality health care during these difficult economic times, the need for health care reform that improves health outcomes is immediate. Her ability to work in a bipartisan fashion will serve her well as the Obama administration and Congress tackle the critical issue of health care reform for American families. We look forward to working with her and the administration to expand access to care and lower health care costs.”
While they lost this fight, anti-abortion activists said it had energized their supporters.
“Despite the results of tonight’s vote, we’re finding that more and more Americans are waking up to the danger of President Obama’s nominations of extreme abortion advocates to serve in his administration,” Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of th Susan B. Anthony List, said in a statement.
“The high profile Sebelius confirmation battle has generated new interest and brought thousands of new activists on board for the pro-life cause. This grassroots energy will only increase our momentum as we confront the next round of President Obama’s extreme pro-abortion nominees, beginning with former NARAL Legal Director Dawn Johnsen. We expect all pro-life Senators will oppose Dawn Johnsen’s nomination for Office of Legal Counsel, and their support will be critical to keeping her extreme abortion views out of the White House.”
THE PRESIDENT: Congratulations, Madam Secretary.
SECETARY SEBELIUS: Thank you, sir.
THE PRESIDENT: Here we go. We're just going to make a brief statement. I am thrilled to have Kathleen Sebelius as my new Secretary of Health and Human Services.
Obviously, we have a lot to do to make sure that health care is affordable for the American people, to deal with critical issues like food safety. But we wanted to swear her in right away because we've got a significant public health challenge that requires her immediate attention, and that is the H1N1 flu outbreak that we've seen initially in Mexico and we now see over at -- got some cases here in the United States.
It is something that we have to monitor very carefully. The officials who have been in charge, including the Acting Director at the CDC, those at Department of Homeland Security, have done an outstanding job, a superb job, in managing the situation up to this point.
But we need all hands on deck, and so I am thrilled that we have Secretary Sebelius taking the reins. She is going to be immediately briefed on the issues that we're working on right now. I expect her to hit the ground running, and I have every confidence that given her experience as a governor who's managed crises before, who's worked on public health issues since she's been in public life, she is the right person at the right time for the job.
So congratulations. We are thrilled, and you are going to do a great job.
SECRETARY SEBELIUS: Thank you. Honored to serve.
THE PRESIDENT: Thank you.
All right, thanks, guys.
About Political Intelligence
Glen Johnson is Politics Editor at boston.com and lead blogger for "Political Intelligence." He moved to Massachusetts in the fourth grade, and has covered local, state, and national politics for over 25 years. E-mail him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.