Senate Republicans Throw Obstacles Before Sebelius, Johnsen Nominations

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Senate Republicans Throw Obstacles Before Sebelius, Johnsen Nominations

Kay Steiger

Protests from anti-choice activists continue to stall the nominations of Dawn Johnsen to Office of Legal Counsel and Gov. Kathleen Sebelius to Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services.

During Gov. Kathleen Sebelius’
confirmation hearing for Secretary of Health and Human Services before
the Senate Finance Committee, former presidential candidate and Republican
Sen. Bob Dole said, "It would really help if you could get her confirmed
before the recess. She can’t even get into the building and we are
a little behind anyway and this is the issue of the year." Of course,
the Finance Committee didn’t vote on Sebelius’ confirmation until
after the recess, when a by a bipartisan
vote of 15-8
the Committee recommended
she be confirmed. But the full Senate has yet to vote,
though they were expected to do so on Thursday.

The Senate Republicans are behind the delay, with Senate Minority Mitch McConnell leading
the fight. They are making a last-minute attempt to block Sebelius’
confirmation, raising
of her stance on abortion. This makes her the last member of Obama’s Cabinet yet to be confirmed.  

Last week, the Family Research
Council, an anti-choice lobbying group, raised
a stink
about Sebelius’s purported "ties"  to Dr. George Tiller, one of Kansas’ few late-term abortion providers. Last month, Tiller was acquitted of 19 counts of misdemeanors brought
against him. But FRC, and now Senate Republicans,
are objecting to Sebelius based on donations Tiller made to a 2002 political PAC that
supported Sebelius in the primary for governor. 

The objections raised by Senators
Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Mike Enzi (R-WY) during confirmation hearings
were that they didn’t want to see health care reform achieved through
the budget reconciliation process. (In a budget reconciliation, debate is significantly limited and only
requires a simple majority to pass. Since Republicans have far fewer
than 50 senators, they fear Democrats will steamroll health care reform
this way.)  It’s an objection that seems like
a distraction, since both President Obama and Democratic leadership
have said they are committed to working with Congress to achieve bipartisan health care

Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.

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Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ) isn’t
opposing Sebelius on abortion, but rather on her general approach to health care reform. Kyl has taken a stance against comparative
effectiveness research, a field of inquiry that many health care reformers suggest can evidence about the effectiveness of treatments in order to better regulate health care. Kyl thinks that such
research and regulation might be used to "deny treatment" and would
rather the private market determine which treatments are used in hospitals. 

Senate Republicans have likewise
raised objections over the confirmation of Dawn Johnsen to the Office
of Legal Council at the Department of Justice, who has a history of
working at pro-choice organizations like the American Civil Liberties
Union and NARAL Pro-Choice America. Anti-choice groups worry that Johnsen, if confirmed, would
have a significant influence over future nominations to the Supreme Court. Even Ben
Nelson (D-NE) has voiced
"concern" over Johnsen’s stance on abortion
, but his office said that concern may not actively
obstruction of her confirmation. 

Despite the stalling tactics
of some Republicans, Sebelius has already received broad, bipartisan
support as HHS Secretary Nominee. Few objections over Sebelius’ stance on abortion
were raised during the committee hearings and no one asked about her
ties to Tiller. Sebelius has also received an endorsement from Kansas Republican Sen.
Pat Roberts
and former Sen. Sam Brownback. But Brownback has recently been debating pulling his support of Sebelius, especially after she vetoed some anti-choice legislation in Kansas. He has
recently emerged as the favored Republican candidate
in recent polls to run for governor.

Meanwhile Sebelius last week vetoed legislation (pdf) that attempted to place restrictions
on late-term abortion providers. The bill sought to have clinics
compile a report about the conditions of late-term abortions and make
it easier to for anti-choice groups to pursue civil cases for "unprofessional
or dishonorable conduct or professional incompetency," a broad and
vague standard. The legislation also stipulates many other restrictions,
known as TRAP
, including
requiring abortion providers to inform patients of "abnormalities
in breast tissue," presumably based on the anti-choice myth that abortions
cause breast cancer. 

Despite the work of McConnell
and others, reports suggest a confirmation vote on Sebelius
may come as early as Tuesday. The Senate has already scheduled eight
hours of debate that day and expects, barring a filibuster, the confirmation
of Sebelius following the debate. 

The scrambles to block the
nominations of Sebelius and Johnsen may show just how desperate the
anti-choice community is. CQ Politics reported that "efforts to defeat other nominees
on social policy grounds have fallen flat, as even Republican senators
have ignored the pleas of outside conservative groups until lately."
Anti-choice groups, which during the Bush administration enjoyed real
power in high-level government positions, seem to be losing their grip.
It’s unlikely that anti-choice groups will actually prevent these
two women from their appointed positions, but it’s also unfortunate
that the work of anti-choice activists is stalling important work of
Congress, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the Department
of Justice.