Ending obstructions thrown up by wingnuts who think that abortion is more important than a global pandemic, the U.S. Senate confirmed Kathleen Sebelius as Secretary of Health and Human Services. Sebelius has resigned as Governor of Kansas and is moving into her office. Lieutenant Governor Mark Parkinson is now the Governor.
Sebelius won her nomination on a 65-31 vote, with Republican Kansas Senators Roberts and Brownback joining the entire Democratic caucus (including newly Democratic Senator Specter), and Republicans Kit Bond of Missouri, Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine, Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, Richard Lugar of Indiana, and George Voinovich of Ohio.
This coalition has several significant features. First, it reminds us that Arlen Specter has much less need to kowtow to the religious wingnuts now that he’s running for re-election as a Democrat. Second, since Sebelius has been touted as the person who will take the lead in advocating for President Obama’s healthcare plans, her vote is a proxy for how that vote will go. Bond, Brownback, and Roberts presumably voted for Sebelius out of a sense of regional pride, and out of legitimate fear of being on the wrong side of the incredibly popular governor. Beyond that, we’ve got all of the remaining Republican Senators from the Northeast, who know that the only way to hold their seats is to stay on the good side of the President. You’ve got Richard Lugar, who is hardly a consistent moderate, who is wobbly on good healthcare policies like allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices, and whose vote could be pivotal on healthcare.
And you’ve got George Voinovich. He’s surely watching the leftward trend of the Northeast and upper mid-West, and surely has his eye on developments in Pennsylvania. He knows Obama won Ohio handily, and he knows that the Republican brand is getting weaker everywhere but the South. So it’s politically wise to stay on Obama’s good side and to maintain a moderate pose. He’s a fiscal conservative, but moderate on many issues, and willing do buck his party when he knows they’re wrong. His vote on healthcare will be vital as well, and his support for Sebelius suggests a willingness in principle to back Obama’s move on this critical issue. As the Democratic side of the aisle swells (with Specter’s party switch, Democrats will have a 60 vote coalition once Senator Franken is seated), Republicans of good will like Voinovich, Lugar, Gregg, Collins, and Snowe will have to work harder to stay relevant. Their support for Sebelius signals a strong willingness to work with the administration on vital issues.
Sebelius will have to move fast now to select senior staff who can manage the effort to contain swine flu, and to strengthen that coalition of support for healthcare reform. We’re facing a crisis in healthcare, not just because of the immediate threat from swine flu, but from inadequate investment in epidemiology and public health infrastructure in general, and from the growing number of uninsured and underinsured Americans.
Updated to fix a stupid mistake in naming.