U.S. Senate approves health chief amid flu fears

WASHINGTON Tue Apr 28, 2009 6:13pm EDT

U.S. President Barack Obama introduces Health and Human services Secretary nominee Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius in the East Room at the White House in Washington, in this file photo from March 2, 2009. REUTERS/Jim Young

U.S. President Barack Obama introduces Health and Human services Secretary nominee Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius in the East Room at the White House in Washington, in this file photo from March 2, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Jim Young

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Senate on Tuesday confirmed Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius as health secretary, filling a crucial spot in President Barack Obama's cabinet amid growing fears of a possible swine flu pandemic.

The Senate voted 65-31 for Sebelius, brushing back Republican opposition to her support for abortion rights. Sebelius was tapped by Obama to lead his push to overhaul the U.S. healthcare system.

But Sebelius will take office as U.S. health officials rush to prepare for a possible widespread outbreak of a new strain of flu that has killed scores of people in Mexico and sickened at least 64 in the United States.

The confirmation of Sebelius allows Obama to fill the last open seat in his cabinet. Democrats said the swine flu outbreak made it all the more important to end the delay in filling that pivotal position.

"It is essential for the health of the nation, that president Obama has in place and the nation has in place, a strong secretary of health and human services to make sure that our federal efforts on this potential pandemic are ably coordinated," said Democratic Senator Mark Warner.

The Sebelius nomination had been delayed by Republicans opposed to her support for abortion rights and a failure to initially report the full extent of her campaign contributions from a doctor who performs abortions.

Sebelius, a former insurance commissioner, will lead Obama's push to enact by the end of this year an overhaul of the $2.5 trillion U.S. healthcare industry, one of the main political goals of his administration.

(Editing by Todd Eastham)

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