Washington — Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius stepped around potential land mines on abortion and her own tax errors Thursday as she testified at a hearing en route to her expected confirmation as health and human services secretary.
Sebelius was not asked any questions about abortion, an issue that’s caused loud complaints from conservative groups angered about her vetoes of some abortion restrictions and the presence of a prominent abortion doctor at a reception at the governor’s residence.
Nor was Sebelius asked about what she has called “unintentional errors” related to charitable deductions, mortgage interest and business expenses on her most recent tax returns. She has paid nearly $8,000 in taxes and penalties.
Instead of focusing on those topics, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., tried to pin Sebelius down on the key question of whether every American should be required to buy health insurance.
In dodging his question, Sebelius said that she and President Barack Obama believe that all Americans should have insurance — even though Obama’s campaign proposal required just children to be covered. She avoided endorsing Baucus’ call for making all people legally responsible for becoming insured.
“There may be variations about how best to reach the goal most effectively, most cost effectively, most efficiently, with the best health outcomes of insuring every American,” Sebelius said.
“And I think he’s open to all of those proposals,” she said of Obama.
“I know the president is totally committed to that proposal, that every American should have health insurance.”
Some 48 million Americans are uninsured. The concept of how, or whether, universal coverage should be mandated is one of the toughest issues Congress and the administration must tackle as they seek to reshape the nation’s health care system.
Senators want to move health overhaul legislation forward by summer. But they decided Thursday to wait to vote on Sebelius’ nomination until they return from a two-week recess that’s about to start, so that lawmakers have more time to review her responses.
It’s taken Obama longer than expected to fill the HHS job because his first pick, former Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle, withdrew from consideration over $140,000 in back taxes and interest he owed on income from consulting and use of a car service.
Sebelius, on the other hand, appears set to win confirmation smoothly. Earlier this week the administration disclosed that she recently filed amended tax returns for three years after an accountant she hired discovered the errors.
The top Republican on the Finance Committee, Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, raised the tax issue in his opening statement Thursday and told her, “I take tax matters very seriously and I am eager for you to address those matters today.” But Grassley didn’t return to the issue during questioning, and Sebelius didn’t bring it up.
Sebelius had the backing of both of Kansas’ Republican senators, Pat Roberts and Sam Brownback — the latter a strong anti-abortion figure — and no senator raised abortion on Thursday or during a hearing Tuesday before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.
Republican senators pressed Sebelius on Thursday to oppose a parliamentary maneuver that would allow health reform legislation to pass the Senate with 51 votes instead of a filibuster-proof 60 votes. Sebelius reiterated that she hoped for a bipartisan solution but didn’t want to take anything off the table.
There was also discussion of whether any health overhaul should include a government-run insurance option. Sebelius expanded on her support for the concept, saying that Kansas’ state employees’ health system includes a public plan that competes with private insurers without putting them out of business.
Sebelius disclosed that she and her husband would be divesting their small investment portfolio of four stocks and funds that could pose conflicts of interest if she’s confirmed. They are the Fidelity Advisor Energy Fund, Westar Energy Inc., Kronos Worldwide Inc. and NL Industries Inc.
The latter two companies manufacture titanium dioxide, an ingredient in cosmetics and milk, both of which are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, which is part of HHS.
Sebelius and her husband had $15,000 or less in stock in the three companies, and between $15,000 and $150,000 in the Fidelity fund, according to her financial disclosure form.