It wasn’t supposed to be like this.
On Thursday, 78 Senators, including 24 Republicans, voted to confirm Sylvia Burwell to be Obamacare’s implementer-in-chief for the rest of his term.
Burwell’s predecessor Kathleen Sebelius had become inextricably linked to the botched rollout, soaring premiums and a never-ending series of unilateral alterations of law, and conventional wisdom suggested replacing Sebelius would be almost impossible because Republicans would use the confirmation process as an opportunity to expose Obamacare’s many flaws. In fact, it was one of the few things pundits could agree on last year.
National Journal editorial director Ron Brownstein said it was a “virtual certainty” Republicans would filibuster a proposed replacement “to leverage more concessions from the administration.” Ron Bonjean, a “GOP strategist” who works at a bipartisan consulting firm, asked “Who can they replace Kathleen Sebelius with that would survive Senate confirmation?” Politico’s White House reporter opined “the White House and Democrats on the Hill know a potential confirmation fight would be so torturous and difficult that they’re better off sticking with” Sebelius. A top Republican congressional aide warned any “confirmation hearing would be rough.”
Even after Sebelius was pushed out this spring, there was still the belief that the confirmation process would be brutal. FoxNews’s Chris Stirewalt painted the most vivid picture: “She will get confirmed because they’ve changed the rules in the Senate to make it easier for Democrats to put things through on a party-line vote. But these confirmation hearings are going to be a goat roping. You mark that down.”
From goat roping to sheep counting, National Journal’s headline called the process to replace Sebelius “a total snoozefest.”
There is no single reason why Burwell was confirmed so easily. Harry Reid’s triggering of the nuclear option last fall most certainly played a role, but there is a larger, more disturbing trend at work: congressional fatigue.
The Obama administration understood the media fervor over websites and signups would die down and many lawmakers would tire. And this proved correct. Washington became weary of fighting over Obamacare and pundits relapsed into viewing it as a mere partisan squabble.
Of course, dismissing Obamacare as a partisan battle over enrollment numbers belies the impact it is having on millions of Americans all across the country. That impact is plain for all to see. In fact, the man rumored to be the next secretary of veterans affairs told FoxNews that “three-quarters of [people who have been forced into Obamacare] find that their premiums are higher than they had been previously with other insurance.” Clearly there is solid ground to fight the law, but that aforementioned fatigue also has given way to acceptance.
Last month, one Republican senator called Obamacare “an example of an important effort by the federal government to help make health care available, accessible and affordable.” Of Burwell, one Republican said “I wish her well.” Another was hopeful she could “provide some of that new leadership from the top to ensure…accountability.” The irony is that Burwell was remarkably unresponsive during her confirmation. There is no reason to think she will be more forthcoming now.
Congressional fatigue and acceptance may have set in, but there still will be opportunities for a goat roping. If lawmakers feel limited in their ability to attack the law—a silly, but real sentiment—they should focus on the inevitable taxpayer bailout of the insurance companies.
By embracing and pushing Sen. Marco Rubio’s (R-Fla.) Obamacare Bailout Prevention Act conservatives in Congress could simultaneously undermine an important element of Obamacare and force President Barack Obama and his allies in Congress to defend corporate welfare. That’s a pretty good one-two punch, but first lawmakers need to wake up and get in the ring.