Senate Republicans get their last chance to grill President Barack Obama's nominee for U.S. health secretary on Wednesday, but seem likely to take a harder line on the alleged failings of Obamacare than the job qualifications of Sylvia Mathews Burwell.
The widely respected White House budget director, who got a cordial reception from both Republicans and Democrats at her first hearing last week, will appear before the Senate Finance Committee for a final hearing at which she is again likely to find support on both sides of the aisle.
Finance Committee members could take a harder line with Burwell, since they are responsible for deciding whether to move her nomination to the Senate floor for a final vote, aides said. Democrats who control the Senate still hope to have her confirmation wrapped up before the May 26 Memorial Day holiday.
"We're not very happy with healthcare. So who knows? It could be a tough line," said Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah, the panel's top Republican.
But Hatch questioned the notion that committee Republicans would use the hearing as a platform for election-year attacks on Obama's landmark healthcare reform law. "Some might think it so. But I'm not sure that I'm going to do that," he said.
Republicans insist the unpopular law known as Obamacare remains front and center in their campaign to take control of the Senate in November's midterm elections. But they have been unexpectedly reticent in their criticism during what some analysts say could be their last chance before the ballot to grill a top administration official about the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA).
"The GOP isn't backing off. But once you get past the public's overall opposition to ACA, their views are nuanced: they want it fixed. And Republicans are struggling mightily on the ground to come up with a fix," said Bill Pierce, a healthcare official under former President George W. Bush.
Republican officials say their campaign has always needed a wider focus including issues such as the economy, jobs and energy as well as Obamacare.
A House Republican aide said a new spate of healthcare hearings could be expected when Obamacare insurance premiums for 2015 come to light in the coming months.
Another reason for the more conciliatory Republican tone appears to be Burwell herself. She has been meeting privately with individual senators, Republican and Democratic, to discuss issues important to the lawmakers and their states. Those meetings led to some favorable public responses from Republicans at last week's hearing before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.
"She and I have sat down, and we agreed that she's going to support the president's position and she's agreed that I'm going to be vehemently opposed to it - and that we're going to focus on everything else where we can work together," said Senator Richard Burr, a North Carolina Republican who sits on both the HELP and finance panels. He announced last week that he will vote to send her nomination to the Senate floor.
Supporters credit Burwell with being able to find common ground with a wide variety of working partners, despite political barriers. Republicans say that helps separate her from outgoing Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, whom they have described as arrogant and aloof in her dealings with Congress.
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