Litmus test limbo



As if we didn't have enough to worry about, now comes the swine flu. But at least we can rest easy knowing that President Obama's top health official, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, is already ensconced in her job, up to speed and on the case. And that's a good thing, because clearly, with potential lives at stake, this crisis requires...

...Wait a sec. Say what? The HHS job is still vacant - at a time like this? Obama's critics are outraged about this blatant incompetence. Religious right leader Gary Bauer has just circulated an email about the flu crisis, noting: "By the way, we go into this potential pandemic with no Secretary of Health and Human Services." Meanwhile, the fair-and-balanced posted an article on Sunday about the flu crisis, noting that "the Department of Health and Human Services is short a secretary."

But there appears to be a key fact missing from these sorrowful laments. The reason that we are "short a secretary" is because the Republicans, in yet another manifestation of the behavior that has relegated them to the margins of governance, have been responsible for holding up the Sebelius confirmation for nearly two months. It's a classic case of litmus test limbo.

Obama formally tapped Kansas governor Sebelius for the HHS job way back on March 2. And during the entire month of March, he and the Senate Democrats had to slow-walk the nomination through the chamber - in other words, advance it hardly an inch - because the Senate Republicans were looking for a fight and itching to take her down. Why? Because Sebelius supports abortion rights, and the religious and social conservatives who dominate what remains of the GOP deem that support to be a deal-breaker.

Finally, in early April, the Democrats tried to schedule a committee vote on Sebelius, so that the nomination could speedily move to the Senate floor. But that committee vote was blocked by the Republicans, and essentially delayed for several more weeks until all the senators returned from Easter recess. Finally, the Republicans ceded ground and allowed the committee vote to proceed, on April 21. Sebelius cleared that committee hurdle, and a floor vote for final confirmation was quickly scheduled for last Thursday, April 23.

But it didn't happen, because the Republicans blocked that one, too.

And while that was going on, the chairman of the Republican National Committee sought to weigh in. Michael Steele, seeking to mend fences with conservatives after saying in a recent interview that abortion is a matter of "individual choice," boldly declared in a Thursday statement that unless Sebelius answered more questions about her abortion views, Obama should withdraw her nomination entirely. (The Obama White House, mindful that Steele probably speaks for hundreds, declined to take his advice.)

So what's the GOP holdup all about? Well, it's like this: Even though the Health and Human Services secretary is the Cabinet officer responsible for everything from food and drug safety to substance abuse programs and domestic violence prevention programs and Medicare and Medicaid and medical preparedness programs, the Senate Republicans - bowing to their base - are very concerned about the amount of campaign money that Sebelius received from a Kansas doctor who has performed some late-term abortions. Apparently the total campaign money is around $35,000 instead of the $12,000 she initially reported.

Regarding the ongoing GOP obstruction, the folks back home at the Wichita Eagle newspaper are shaking their heads in wonder. They editorialize: "Many of the Kansans of both parties who elected Sebelius to statewide office four times may have trouble recognizing their cautious, middle-of-the-road governor in the portrait painted nationally" by the Republican base.

I think it would be interesting for some pollster to ask Americans whether they believe that the crucial HHS job should remain vacant, especially in the midst of a national medical emergency, simply because the president's red-state nominee took campaign contributions from a doctor who performed some late-term abortions. We already know how the conservative base feels, but that's maybe 25 percent of the electorate. I'm more interested in how the rest of the people feel, even though the Republicans apparently are not so interested.

Anyway, to again borrow the Fox News terminology, Obama may be "short a secretary" only a bit longer. The Senate Republicans did agree to allow a floor vote later today, but the deal is that Sebelius has to get 60 votes for confirmation, rather than a simple majority. It will be fascinating to see whether a pivotal number of Republicans are prepared to vote No and thereby risk driving the party to even lower levels of public esteem, if that's possible. (The new ABC News-Washington Post poll reports that 60 percent of Americans have "great" or "good" confidence in Obama making "the right decisions for the country's future." The GOP's share? 21 percent.) 

By the way, some anti-abortion conservatives are very upset that the swine flu crisis might foil their plans to keep Sebelius in limbo. In fact - and I know this will shock you - these folks suspect that the Sunday declaration of a health emergency is merely an Obama conspiracy to get Sebelius confirmed.

Wendy Wright, president of Concerned Women for America, a prominent conservative group in Washington, reportedly said yesterday: "Some people think that declaring a state of emergency about the flu was a political thing to push the Sebelius nomination through. If there's even a hint (that this is true), well, it almost defies imagination that they'd be willing to do that." When asked whether she really believes this stuff, she replied, "There's too much of a basis in that argument to easily dismiss it." When asked where she had heard such an argument, she replied that it was "on talk radio."

Oh please. The folks on the fringe can do better than that. Surely Obama knowingly brought the swine flu into the United States after he purposely shook the diseased hand of Hugo Chavez.