Republicans finally got what they wanted out of the Obama administration: the resignation of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. But the administration got its way as well – the departure of the embattled secretary on her own terms.
Republicans had been calling for Sebelius’ head for many months, pointing to the disastrous technological rollout of the health care exchanges under the Affordable Care Act. It’s part of their effort to undo Obamacare as much as they can – in part because they hate the law and see it as a bureaucratic, big-government takeover of health care, and in part because they want to erase the Obama presidency from the history books and don’t want the president to have any bragging rights once he leaves office. Forcing Sebelius to leave would have given Republicans an actual face to attach the Affordable Care Act’s troubles to, and (wrongly) some sort of proof that the administration had made a terrible mistake in implementing the law.
That was why Sebelius never could have resigned when the law was struggling so much. It would have handed a political victory to Republicans at a time when the administration needed to build public confidence in the law. Further, under the old filibuster rules, a Sebelius departure would have practical implications as well. Republicans have consistently held up nominees – even those they agree are qualified – because they simply don’t want someone in charge of enforcing laws they don’t like. That’s what happened to Donald Berwick, the health care maven whose nomination to head the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid was held up, and Richard Cordray, who underwent a similar delay after being named to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. (Berwick ended up resigning soon before his recess appointment would have expired, since the Senate was not going to confirm him, while Cordray was finally confirmed two years after Obama announced his intention to nominate Cordray.)
Had Sebelius resigned before the Senate changed it filibuster rules, it’s highly unlike Senate Republicans would have done anything other than torture her replacement in confirmation hearings – then refuse to confirm the new secretary.
The law has had a shaky start, which is not unexpected for something as complicated and sweeping as the Affordable Care Act. But Sebelius leaves on what passes for a high note: she announced Thursday that 7.5 million people have signed up for health insurance on the federal and state exchanges, exceeding the original goal. Republicans will still undoubtedly try to undo the law. But they never really got Sebelius.