WASHINGTON — Gov. Kathleen Sebelius won Senate committee approval as health and human services secretary Tuesday, despite opposition from Republicans — including Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah — who are critical of her ties to a late-term abortion doctor.
The Finance Committee voted 15 to 8 to send the Kansas Democrat's nomination to the full Senate for a final vote. Sebelius wasn't present the day before, when President Barack Obama held his first formal Cabinet meeting.
"Governor Sebelius strongly shares the president's commitment to high-quality, affordable health care for all Americans, and if confirmed, will work to bring down the crippling cost of health care and expand coverage," White House spokeswoman Kate Bedingfield said after the vote. "We are pleased that she was confirmed by the Finance Committee this morning and look forward to a vote before the full Senate."
The committee vote came after several Republicans voiced concerns in recent days about Sebelius' ties to Dr. George Tiller, a late-term abortion doctor who is under investigation by the Kansas medical board.
Hatch said that although "Sebelius initially seemed to be the right person for the job … I had to re-evaluate my support for her nomination after learning about her inexplicable omission of donations from the late-term abortion doctor George Tiller."
She told the committee in written responses after her confirmation hearing this month that Tiller had given her $12,450 between 1994 and 2001. She revised that response after an Associated Press review showed that Tiller and his abortion clinic donated an additional $23,000 between 2000 and 2002 to a political-action committee that Sebelius had established to raise money for fellow Democrats. Sebelius apologized and called it an inadvertent omission.
Hatch said that "life is sacred" and that one of his proudest accomplishments in the Senate was helping to pass "legislation to ban partial-birth abortion." He added, "My strong beliefs in the sanctity of life simply made it impossible for me to support Governor Sebelius' nomination."
Only two of 10 Finance Committee Republicans supported Sebelius. They were Sen. Pat Roberts from her home state of Kansas and moderate Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine.
The GOP also questioned her commitment to ensuring that the government doesn't try to interfere with the doctor-patient relationship.
"I believe in the right of every American to choose the doctor, the hospital, the health plan of his or her choice," Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., said before the vote. But he contended that Sebelius had displayed "insufficient commitment to these principles."
Sebelius had offered assurances that she believed it was the job of doctors, not the government, to prescribe care. That wasn't enough for some GOP lawmakers, who worried that the Obama administration's plans to overhaul the nation's costly health-care system could move the country toward a government-operated health-care system.
Timing on when Sebelius may be considered by the full Senate is uncertain, though Democrats hoped to move swiftly.
Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., the Finance Committee's chairman, said he would "push for immediate action by the full Senate so that she can finally roll up her sleeves and get down to helping out on this critical work of reforming the health-care system."
Sebelius was Obama's second choice for health secretary, after his first pick — former Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle — withdrew in February over unpaid taxes. She would replace former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt (who resigned when Obama took office) as the Health and Human Services secretary.
Sebelius, 60, is a popular two-term Democratic governor in a Republican-leaning state.
Contributing: Lee Davidson, Deseret News