WASHINGTON -- Key Democrats on the Senate Finance Committee were divided in their reaction to President Obama’s recess appointment this morning of health care policy guru Dr. Donald Berwick to lead the agency that oversees Medicare and Medicaid.
For the Obama administration, the maneuver around the legislative branch’s usual confirmation process was driven by political necessity: the White House saw storm clouds on the horizon for Berwick, as Republicans prepared to hammer him in hearings over his support of the British health care system. Republicans also said they would use Berwick’s hearings to "re-litigate’’ the health care bill as November’s mid-term elections loomed.
Despite those tactical considerations, an objection came from the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Democrat Max Baucus of Montana, an Obama ally who would have led Berwick’s confirmation hearings.
Said Baucus: “I'm troubled that, rather than going through the standard nomination process, Dr. Berwick was recess appointed. Senate confirmation of presidential appointees is an essential process prescribed by the Constitution that serves as a check on executive power and protects Montanans and all Americans by ensuring that crucial questions are asked of the nominee – and answered.’’
Baucus qualified his complaint, however: “Despite the recess appointment, I look forward to working with (the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services) as they implement health reform to deliver the better health care outcomes and lower costs for patients we fought to pass in the landmark health reform law,” Baucus added.
John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, a member of the Senate Finance Committee, diverged from that point of view. He strongly defended the White House circumvention of the legislative branch in this instance. Although Baucus had not even scheduled a hearing for Berwick, Kerry nonetheless blamed GOP "stalling’’ on his nomination -- an apparent reference to the GOP warnings of a GOP roasting and expected "holds,'' which allow single senators to put a freeze on nominees.
“Republican lockstep stalling of Don’s nomination was a case study in cynicism and one awful example of how not to govern. Republicans screamed that these federal programs were in trouble, then tried to deny the Administration the capable guy the President had chosen to oversee them,’’ Kerry said.
"The President did the right thing making this a recess appointment. He wasn’t going to let the Republicans thrive in a chaos of their own making. Instead, he put seniors, kids, and the disabled ahead of Republican gamesmanship, and he put a terrific public servant in place,’’ he said.
President Obama, also, in a brief statement today announcing his recess appointments of Berwick and two other officials in science and financial oversight roles, blamed Republicans for forcing his hand.
“It’s unfortunate that at a time when our nation is facing enormous challenges, many in Congress have decided to delay critical nominations for political purposes,” President Obama said.
The recess appointment lasts until the end of the session of Congress, in late 2011. So in 18 months or so, the debate over Berwick will undoubtedly begin again.
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.