(Adds vote total, lawmaker comments)
WASHINGTON, June 5 The U.S. Senate on Thursday
confirmed Sylvia Mathews Burwell as President Barack Obama's new
health secretary, making her chiefly responsible for
implementing the controversial healthcare law known as
In a 78-17 vote that showed some Republican opposition,
lawmakers approved Burwell as the replacement for U.S. Health
and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, who abruptly
announced her resignation in April. She had spearheaded
implementation of the law through five stormy years that
included last year's botched rollout of the federal website,
Democrats hope that Burwell's rise from White House budget
director to the helm of the U.S. Department of Health and Human
Services will mark the beginning of a new, less contentious
chapter in the rollout of Obama's signature domestic policy.
"She has really shown her capability in her time as the head
of the Office of Management and Budget," Senator Bill Nelson, a
Florida Democrat, said before the vote. "Most people feel like
she has really done an excellent job."
The Affordable Care Act, which is meant to extend health
coverage to millions of uninsured Americans, has become a top
issue in the Republican Party's campaign to take control of the
Senate in the November midterm elections.
Democrats say one of Burwell's biggest tasks will be to keep
the law out of troubled waters until Election Day, despite
Republican attempts to spotlight issues ranging from higher
health insurance premiums and inaccurate federal subsidy
allocations, to policy cancellations for small businesses and
crippled state-based insurance marketplaces.
"By most accounts, Sylvia Burwell is a smart and skilled
public servant," said Republican leader Senator Mitch McConnell,
who voted against her. "But her embrace of Obamacare calls her
policy judgment into question."
But many Republicans voted in favor of Burwell. Senator
Orrin Hatch of Utah said she was well-qualified, though he
cautioned that "no one should mistake that to mean that I have
somehow softened in my resolve against Obamacare."
Burwell, a powerful member of the Obama West Wing's upper
echelon, will also assume responsibility for a host of
non-Obamacare challenges including funding and staff shortages
and low moral across a sprawling cabinet-level department that
regulates prescription drugs and food safety, combats disease
outbreaks and oversees biomedical research.
The new HHS secretary's supporters say she is perfect for
the job: a seasoned problem-solver known for her ability to
engage with people of diverse interests and produce acceptable
decisions under difficult circumstances.
Burwell will need to act quickly to persuade health insurers
to restrain premium increases on Obamacare plans that would be
sold in the federal marketplace next year. The deadline for plan
submissions is June 27.
The new HHS secretary was confirmed last year as White House
budget director by a 96-0 vote.
(Reporting by Emily Stephenson and David Morgan; Editing by
Bill Trott and Richard Chang)