Sebelius Faces Senate Grilling

WASHINGTON – Senators are expected Thursday to ask Kathleen Sebelius, President Barack Obama's choice for health secretary, more questions about her policies and politics than about the $7,000 worth of mistakes she made on her taxes.

The Senate Finance Committee may well ask the Kansas governor if she thinks the federal government should influence what treatments health insurance companies pay for, or whether she will deal with Republican concerns as she sets out to overhaul the health care system. Her views on abortion rights also might be brought up during her confirmation hearing.

There's a sense that the Senate needs to act quickly on Sebelius' nomination so lawmakers can push ahead with the ambitious schedule they have set for health reform legislation this year. The Finance Committee votes on whether to send the nomination to the full Senate.

"It would certainly be helpful to have an HHS secretary in place to move things along," said Mark McClellan, a health policy expert who ran Medicare and the Food and Drug Administration under President George W. Bush. "I haven't heard anything that suggests this nomination is going to get derailed."

Earlier this week, Sebelius told the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee that "health reform would be my mission" if confirmed.

Sebelius, 60, would run a department of 67,000 employees and a budget of more than $700 billion. Medicare, Medicaid, the FDA, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the National Institutes of Health would be in her purview.

In her appearance Tuesday before the other Senate committee, Sebelius stuck closely to the administration's line. She supports giving all Americans the option of joining a government-sponsored health care plan, something the insurance industry and most Republicans strongly oppose. She said she would prefer health care legislation that both parties can support, but she wouldn't rule out using a parliamentary strategy to pass a bill with Democrats only.

She called for a crackdown on health care fraud and said she would oppose rationing. For the most part, the hearing was a low-key affair.

That evening, the administration disclosed that Sebelius had filed amended tax returns for three years. An accountant she'd hired to scrub her taxes in preparation for her confirmation hearings found "unintentional errors" totaling about $7,000.

Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, the top Republican on the Finance Committee, told reporters Wednesday he felt Sebelius made "a good-faith effort" to pay her taxes correctly in the first place and the errors should not count against her.

"I think we wouldn't be having this hearing if we didn't think the tax things were pretty well taken care of," said Grassley. He suggested he's more concerned with Sebelius' views on Medicare and Medicaid, and how her support for abortion rights might influence policies at the Health and Human Services Department.

Sebelius said the tax mistakes involved charitable contributions, the sale of a home and business expenses. In a letter to senators Tuesday, she said she filed the amended returns as soon as the errors were discovered.

Sebelius and her husband, Gary, a federal magistrate judge in Kansas, paid a total of $7,040 in back taxes and $878 in interest to amend returns from 2005-07.

Several Obama administration nominees have run into tax troubles, notably the president's first pick for HHS secretary, former Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle. He withdrew from consideration while apologizing for failing to pay $140,000 in taxes and interest.

Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., issued a statement Tuesday supporting Sebelius.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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