KETR

Obamacare Fight Leads Sen. Roberts To Turn Against Old Friend Sebelius

Oct 18, 2013
Originally published on October 18, 2013 12:28 pm

This month's government shutdown grew out of Republicans' insistence on a budget that defunded the Affordable Care Act.

That didn't happen, but Republicans still detest the law — and now there's a movement underway to oust Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.

What's unexpected is that the effort is being led by a senator from Sebelius' home state, Kansas Republican Pat Roberts — someone she's long had close family and professional ties to.

Sebelius had served six years as governor of Kansas before she came to Washington at the start of the Obama administration. When she did so, no one seemed prouder than Roberts.

"It is a special and great opportunity for ... a Kansan to be represented as a member of the president's Cabinet," Roberts said at Sebelius' confirmation hearing in 2009.

Roberts described their "special relationship," going back decades. But now, more than four years later, his tone has changed.

In a YouTube video last week, Roberts responded to the troubled rollout of the new health insurance exchanges and the technical problems people have encountered while trying to sign up online.

"Enough is enough," he said. "Today I am calling on Kathleen Sebelius to resign her post as secretary of Health and Human Services. Secretary Sebelius has had three and a half years to launch Obamacare, and she has failed."

Now, it's hardly news that a Republican member of the Senate is criticizing a Cabinet official from the Obama administration. What's interesting here is that Roberts is showing such animosity toward someone with whom he has had such a close relationship.

It's one that goes back to before either held public office, says University of Kansas political scientist Burdett Loomis.

"There's this combination of the personal and the political," Loomis says. "Pat Roberts began his political career working for Keith Sebelius, congressman from western Kansas. He subsequently succeeded Keith Sebelius in that job."

And Keith Sebelius, a Republican, is the father-in-law of Democrat Kathleen Sebelius.

As officeholders, Loomis says Kathleen Sebelius and Roberts have long worked well together.

But he also notes that as Kansas has become a reliably red state, its Republican Party has gotten much more conservative. He adds that Obamacare is extremely unpopular there, so there's plenty of motivation for Roberts to distance himself from — and even lead the effort against — an old friend.

"He's moving with the times," Loomis says. "He's doing what savvy politicians do. And I think that as he approaches this next term — he'll be 78 when he runs for re-election — I think that he doesn't want to have any impediments in his way."

Roberts does have a primary opponent in 2014 — Milton Wolf, a Tea Party candidate who happens to be President Obama's second cousin. (As NPR's Adam Wollner has reported, Wolf's mother was Obama's grandmother's cousin, and Wolf's and Obama's mothers were childhood friends in Kansas.)

Wolf is considered a long shot, but Loomis says Roberts appears to be taking no chances in the wake of Tea Party defeats of other veteran Republican senators, such as Richard Lugar of Indiana.

Sebelius, meanwhile, has not responded to Roberts. She has acknowledged that the launch of the HealthCare.gov exchange website was "rockier than we would have liked."

There was "lots and lots and lots of interest and difficulty getting people on the site and getting them to the plans," she said in Cincinnati this week.

But Sebelius got a strong vote of support from the White House. And adding to her job security is the fact that nominating a new Health and Human Services secretary would mean another confirmation hearing — and another avenue for Republicans to attack the health care law.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Now let's get back to the issue that was at the heart of the government shutdown - Republican efforts to repeal or at least discredit the Affordable Care Act. Having failed to defund Obamacare, there's now a movement underway to oust Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. But what's unexpected is that effort is being led by a senator from her home state with whom she has long had close family and professional ties. NPR national political correspondent Don Gonyea reports.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: This is a story about two friends from the state of Kansas. Democrat Kathleen Sebelius was a two-term governor who came to Washington at the start of the Obama administration. When she did so, no one seemed prouder than now three-term Republican Senator Pat Roberts, who spoke at her confirmation hearing in 2009.

SENATOR PAT ROBERTS: Well, Governor Sebelius, welcome. It is a special and great opportunity for Kansas to be represented as a member - a Kansan to be represented as a member of the president's cabinet.

GONYEA: Roberts described their, quote, special relationship going back decades. But now, four plus years later, his tone has changed.

ROBERTS: Enough is enough.

GONYEA: That's Senator Roberts in a YouTube video one week ago. He was reacting to the troubled rollout and technical problems people have encountered while trying to sign up online for healthcare exchanges.

ROBERTS: Today I am calling on Kathleen Sebelius to resign her post as secretary of Health and Human Services. Secretary Sebelius has had three and a half years to launch Obamacare and she has failed.

GONYEA: Now, it's hardly news that a Republican member of the Senate is criticizing a cabinet official from the Obama administration. What's interesting here is that Roberts is showing such animosity towards someone with whom he's had such a close relationship, one that goes way back before either held public office, according to University of Kansas political scientist Burdett Loomis.

BURDETT LOOMIS: I think there is this combination of the personal and the political. Pat Roberts began his political career working for Keith Sebelius, congressman from Western Kansas. He subsequently seceded Keith Sebelius in that job.

GONYEA: And Keith Sebelius, a Republican, is the father-in-law of Democrat Kathleen Sebelius. As office holders, Loomis says Kathleen Sebelius and Pat Roberts have long worked well together, but he also notes that as Kansas has become a reliably red state, its Republican Party has gotten much more conservative.

He adds that Obamacare is extremely unpopular there, so there's plenty of motivation for Senator Roberts to distance himself and even lead the effort against an old friend.

LOOMIS: He's moving with the times. He's doing what savvy politicians do. And I think that as he approaches this next term, he'll be 78 when he runs for reelection, I think that he doesn't want to have any impediments in his way.

GONYEA: Roberts does have a primary opponent in 2014, a Tea Party candidate named Milton Wolf, who happens to be a second cousin to President Obama. Obama's mother's family lived in Kansas. The challenger is considered a long shot, but Professor Loomis says Roberts appears to be taking no chances in the wake of Tea Party defeats of other veteran Republican senators, such as Richard Luger of Indiana.

Secretary Sebelius, meanwhile, has not responded to Roberts. She was in Cincinnati this week where she acknowledged this...

SECRETARY KATHLEEN SEBELIUS: Now, I'll be the first to tell you that the website launch was rockier than we would have liked. Lots and lots of lots of interest and difficulty getting people on the site and getting them to the plans.

GONYEA: She got a strong vote of support this week from the White House. Adding to her job security? Nominating a new Health and Human Services secretary would mean another confirmation hearing, opening another avenue for Republicans to attack the healthcare law. It would also be a hearing absent the kind bipartisan words Senator Roberts once had for his fellow Kansan. Don Gonyea, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.