WASHINGTON — Sylvia Mathews Burwell emerged mostly unscathed Thursday from the first of two hearings on her nomination to head the Health and Human Services Department, even though her chief role will be to continue implementing the president’s controversial health-care law.
Burwell, whose confirmation is likely, did not get much of a grilling and even received strong vows of support from two influential Republicans: Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who introduced her warmly to the committee, and Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, who promised to vote to confirm her at her next hearing before the Senate Finance Committee.
But the wide-ranging hearing also touched on some of the more contentious aspects of the law that she would be mired in: the technical problems that continue to plague the federal health insurance website, the unfinished job of expanding Medicaid and the president’s broken promise that people who liked their old plans could keep them.
Burwell also would inherit an agency that underwent major turmoil because of the rocky rollout of the health-care law last year.
“The position for which she is currently nominated is perhaps the most thankless. That’s why I advised her against taking the leadership position at HHS,” joked McCain, who called Burwell a friend. “After all, who would recommend their friend take over as captain of the Titanic after it hit the iceberg?”
The gentle treatment underscored the broad support Burwell enjoys in her current role as head of the Office of Management and Budget, where she is viewed as a competent leader. It marked a contrast with HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, who clashed often with Republicans prior to announcing last month that she would resign.
Because of a change in Senate rules last year, Burwell only needs 51 votes to be confirmed, a hurdle she could clear without the support of any Republicans.
Still, Burwell steered a cautious path at the Thursday hearing, emphasizing her collaborative and leadership credentials and detailing her management philosophies, rather than straying into controversial territory.
Burwell called the technical problems that initially plagued the website “unacceptable.” But she said the Affordable Care Act is “making a difference in the lives of our families and our communities while strengthening the economy,” and said addressing the problems that still plague HealthCare.gov would be a top priority.
In one of the few tense exchanges, Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, the ranking Republican on the committee, asked Burwell if she would extend the deadline for people to keep old health plans that do not comply with the health-care law. He also asked if she would give states more flexibility to implement the law, noting that many of them had declined the law’s expansion of Medicaid, the state-federal program for the poor.
But Burwell did not answer the first question and offered a diplomatic answer on the second. “I think flexibility is important,” she said, adding that “I think principles are important. And where you meet in that space is enough standardization that meets the principles but flexibility to meet the varied needs of states.”
Asked by Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., if she would be an “ambassador for Obamacare,” as he said Sebelius was, or “a secretary for the American people,” Burwell was equally diplomatic.
“First and foremost I serve the American people,” she said. “I believe that the president and his policies are aligned with that and will work, but I am here to serve the American people.”
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Washington Post staffers Jason Millman and Eddy Palanzo contributed to this report.