US President Barack Obama names Sylvia Mathews Burwell (R), his current budget director, to replace Heath and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius (L) in the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington on April 11, 2014.
Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty

The ‘proxy war’ that ended with a whimper

When President Obama nominated Sylvia Burwell to succeed Kathleen Sebelius as Secretary of Health and Human Services, much of the political world predicted an ugly, divisive fight. After all, Republicans needed a new platform to complain about “Obamacare,” and Burwell’s confirmation hearings offered a unique opportunity.
As Rachel noted on the show a few weeks ago, after Burwell’s nomination, “Beltway media sirens went off all over the 202 area code.”
* The Wall Street Journal: “Will Burwell’s confirmation be another front in the Obamacare war?”
* Business Insider: “Here comes the next big fight over Obamacare.”
* Politico: “Republicans hope to turn Burwell’s nomination into a proxy war.”
* Fox News: “Republicans should use the hearing as leverage against Obamacare.”
* Reuters: “Republicans to push anti- Obamacare message in U.S. Senate hearings to confirm Burwell.”
My personal favorite was the Republican strategist who said the party intended to trip up Burwell and force an embarrassing slip. “One gaffe and they lose the news cycle,” a GOP strategist said.
But there was no gaffe. Or organized opposition. Or proxy war. Indeed, no one seemed to care about “the next big fight over Obamacare” at all.
Burwell was, in fact, confirmed this afternoon, 78 to 15. It would have been even more lopsided, but some Republicans, including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), conceded they voted against her just for the symbolism.
So how did Burwell go from being the target of coordinated GOP ire to one of the least controversial cabinet nominees?
By some measures, Burwell, Obama’s former OMB chief, was the right nominee at the right time, who knew exactly how to play by Capitol Hill’s rules.
She assiduously courted lawmakers. Promised to be more transparent and responsive. Won them over with her private-sector credentials.
In short, Sylvia Mathews Burwell ran a textbook campaign for one of the most controversial posts in the administration: implementing Obamacare.
And while that’s certainly true, let’s also not forget that the air has deflated from the “We Hate Obamcare With Everything We’ve Got” balloon. The “war” is over, as is the repeal crusade. To generate passionate opposition to Burwell would have required Republicans to take the fight over the Affordable Care Act seriously enough to care.
For much of Capitol Hill, that point has apparently come and gone.