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Heavy hitters backing Leavitt nomination

Kennedy, Reid praise him; token opposition expected

Published: Sunday, Jan. 16 2005 12:00 a.m. MST

WASHINGTON — A little more than a year after he faced some tough questioning during a confirmation hearing to become administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt will be back before two different Senate committees this week to answer lawmakers' queries about how he would head the Department of Health and Human Services.

The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee conducts hearings Tuesday morning, followed by the Senate Finance Committee Wednesday afternoon, on the eve of the presidential inauguration.

And by all accounts, President Bush's nomination of Leavitt will sail through with little, if any, opposition. And he has a powerful friend on both committees to smooth the waters: U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah.

"Mike is simply one of the best leaders I've ever known," Hatch said at the time of the nomination. "He will bring competence and compassion to the people's agency."

While it is one thing for a powerful senator from Leavitt's home state to sound a ringing endorsement, it is quite another when the minority party chimes in. The ranking Democrat on the Health committee, Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, and the Democratic Senate leader, Harry Reid of Nevada, have both joined the chorus praising Leavitt.

"He knows firsthand many of the major issues he'll be facing at HHS, and he brings the perceptions of a former governor who has seen health and human services programs in action," Kennedy said in Congressional Quarterly.

Kennedy added he welcomes Leavitt's nomination and looked forward to working with him on health-care reforms.

Capitol Hill staffers predicted the nomination will sail through both committees, but they also expect some partisan sniping. "That's business as usual," said one Senate aide.

Opposition could come from two quarters: The pro-choice forces, something that is expected, and the far right, who sees Leavitt as too liberal on things such as sex education. And expect criticism over Leavitt's role in a 2002 federal Medicaid waiver, something that alarmed advocates for the poor in the 1990s and worries them more today.

Even those who criticize Leavitt have given the former governor high marks over his health-care reform plan, called HealthPrint, and his efforts to expand health insurance coverage for the working poor. He also expanded coverage to low-income elderly, the blind and disabled.

The basic premise of Leavitt' approach — one that is certain to evoke questioning from senators — is that it is better to offer less coverage but expand coverage over a broader population of needy than it is to offer a full range of coverage to a select few.

While acknowledging there have been successes, advocates for the poor worry that the waiver has led to reduced medical care for the truly needy, and that the very poor don't have proper dental and vision care. And now they worry this plan could become a blueprint for national Medicaid reform.

Some women's groups have sounded the alarm about Leavitt's pro-life stance and have resurrected a 1997 quote wherein Leavitt said he wanted Utah to have "the toughest abortion law in the nation."

They also pointed out that Leavitt signed into law bills that were later struck down by the federal courts.

And Leavitt has some opposition from the far right. Tony Perkins with the Family Research Council told Washington Update that his organization "won't be decking the halls or donning our gay apparel on the appointment."

And Peter Brandt with Focus on the Family said he is worried about Leavitt's track record, although the group has stated it will not oppose the nomination.

"This is the man who, as Utah governor, vetoed a law that would have required that students be exposed to a strong abstinence-until-marriage and fidelity-thereafter message," he told Citizen Link.

Brandt also said Leavitt, as Utah governor, gave federal money intended for abstinence programs to Planned Parenthood.

"He also decided that sponsoring hockey leagues was an appropriate use of abstinence-only funding," he said. "His history leaves us somewhat uneasy as to where he will be when it comes to these important programs."

As secretary of HHS, Leavitt would oversee dozens of federal agencies and programs encompassing some of the most volatile issues in American politics, from abortion and stem cell research to Medicaid reform and drug testing.

What does Leavitt have to say about all the criticism? Utahns will find out Tuesday and Wednesday. Until then, he is being sequestered — as all nominees are — from the media.


E-mail: spang@desnews.com

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