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Why Sebelius will keep her job for now

By Leigh Ann Caldwell, CNN
updated 7:28 AM EDT, Tue October 29, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Despite the public relations nightmare, Sebelius appears secure in her job
  • Sebelius is President Barack Obama's scapegoat for the Obamacare website disaster
  • Confirmation hearings to replace her would be politically damaging for the President
  • Replacing Sebelius wouldn't necessarily fix the problems

Washington (CNN) -- Challenges continue to mount for Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.

Public criticism persists as she prepares to testify Wednesday before a Congressional committee demanding answers about ongoing problems with the Obama administration's health care enrollment website.

Public ridicule reached prime-time -- or late-night -- when "Saturday Night Live" parodied Sebelius and the HealthCare.gov debacle that has rocked the online rollout of President Barack Obama's signature domestic policy achievement.

Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyoming, called her a "laughingstock" on ABC's "This Week" and said "she's lost considerable credibility."

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Then another Obamacare website outage occurred over the weekend. It resulted from efforts to fix a technical problem.

The program could take another hit on Tuesday as Marilyn Tavenner, who reports to Sebelius and is the administrator of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, appears before the House Ways and Means Committee. Tavenner's agency oversaw the creation of the online marketplace that has taken so much heat.

Expect Tavenner to be peppered with questions from both Republicans and Democrats.

But Sebelius appears secure for now, despite political uproar, a public relations debacle and a "punch list" of tangible problems that have hampered the Obamacare website.

That's because Obama has her back.

The President has resisted calls from Republican opponents to show Sebalius the door.

He has "full confidence" in Sebelius, White House spokesman Jay Carney said this month.

That's all Sebelius needs at the moment, and she knows it, especially with her appearance before the House Energy and Commerce Committee looming.

Sebelius told CNN last week that "the majority of people calling for me to resign, I would say, are people who I don't work for and who do not want this program to work in the first place."

For the time being, Obama has few choices other than to stick with the woman responsible for implementing the initiative to get millions of uninsured Americans health insurance.

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Scapegoat Sebelius

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While Sebelius is constantly being hammered for the faulty rollout, the President escapes a good deal of the blame.

Sebelius even protected the President by saying in the interview with CNN that he didn't know about potential problems with the website until a couple of days after its launch on October 1.

Eric Dezenhall, crisis management expert and CEO of Dezenhall Resources, said the president is getting a free ride.

"She is going to absorb a tremendous amount of lightning," he said, adding that is part of the plan.

"The general rules is the President announces good news and the departments announce bad news and get the blame," said Dezenhall, who worked in President Ronald Reagan's administration.

Rep. Darrell Issa of California has aggressively investigated the Obama administration as chairman of the Republican-led House Oversight Committee.

And he is putting the blame over snafus with the Affordable Care Act online rollout squarely at the feet of Sebelius.

"The President has been poorly served in the implementation of his own signature legislation," Issa said Sunday on CBS' "Meet the Press."

Confirmation concessions

One reason Sebelius is likely to keep her job for now is that a permanent replacement requires Senate confirmation, finding someone else ostensibly to serve out her term would subject Obama to a damaging political fight with conservative Republicans determined to get rid of the health care law.

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Moreover, CNN senior political analyst Ron Brownstein said an Obama ally would not ultimately be confirmed, regardless of who was appointed.

There would be "virtual certainty" of a Republican filibuster as "an opportunity to use this as kind of a way to leverage more concessions from the administration," Brownstein, editorial director of National Journal, said Monday on CNN's "New Day."

Additionally, a confirmation hearing and debate in the Senate over a nominee would create another opportunity for Republicans to re-litigate Obamacare.

It's a commonly used tactic in Washington. Republicans held up two nominees to head the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau because they opposed the new agency designed to protect consumers and didn't want to see it running because they felt it put unfair burdens on business.

The President could avoid a confirmation fight by appointing an interim replacement, but there are political and practical risks with that as well.

Firing her won't fix it

In fact, it could make the situation worse.

Bringing in someone on a temporary basis to oversee the largest implementation of a government program since Medicare in 1965 could confuse the process.

Dr. Mark McClellan, former administrator for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, oversaw the bumpy roll out of Medicare's expansive Part D program. He said firing her "by itself wouldn't do anything."

Sebelius is the public face of Obamacare. McClellan said she needs to "make sure there's an effective strategy to address the problem" as well answer questions for the public and Congress.

Obama has brought in additional help, including Jeffrey Zients, who is a noted management consultant, former White House budget official and the forthcoming director of the National Economic Council.

The appointment has been praised by some of the most critical Republicans.

"He's got a lot of managerial experience. He's been a consultant for the health care industry. I think he's got the right qualifications," Rep. Jeff Fleming, R-Louisiana, said Sunday on CNN's "State of the Union."

Sebelius' Obamacare damage control fuels critics' fire

Obamacare hasn't failed yet

While the online roll out has been a disaster, the actual program hasn't failed. People have until March 31 to sign up to obtain health coverage for 2014.

"If people become more comfortable with the program, the outrage will recede," Dezenhall said.

"It's going to take a while to get people acclimated to managing their health care this way. I think there's going to be a lot of bed side manner, hand holding, and direction giving and that's going to take a while," he added.

Dezenhall cautioned, however, the scenario could change quickly and the administration should be assessing the situation constantly.

For instance, the program needs to enroll millions of the young and the healthy to keep costs down and enable the program to work.

"This is day by day," he said. "If the problems continue and they may, he may have to change his tone."

CNN's Leslie Bentz, Ed Payne, Adam Aigner-Treworgy and Jason Seher contributed to this report.

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