President Barack Obama\’s new Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius was sworn in shortly after her confirmation by the US Senate, against the backdrop of global swine flu fears.
The lawmakers voted 65-31 to approve Sebelius to the post amid concerns that gaps in senior US government health positions could adversely affect the response to the outbreak in the dangerous disease.
The former governor of Kansas was immediately flown to Washington and took the oath in the Oval Office of the White House with the president at her side.
“We wanted to swear her in right away because we\’ve got a significant public health challenge that requires her immediate attention, and that is the H1N1 flu outbreak that we\’ve seen initially in Mexico and we now see over a dozen cases here in the United States,” Obama told reporters after the ceremony.
“It is something we have to monitor very carefully,” said Obama, adding that his newest cabinet member would be briefed immediately by top US health officials on the status of the swine flu outbreak.
“We need all hands on deck,” he said.
Sebelius and Obama\’s lead health aide at the White House, Nancy-Ann DeParle, also face the daunting task of coordinating the president\’s ambitious plans to remake the US health care system.
“Obviously we have a lot to do to make sure that health care is affordable for the American people,” Obama said.
Democratic Senator Max Baucus, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said “she\’s a problem solver, and that\’s what Congress needs in a partner for health care reform.”
“I look forward to working with the governor to create the high quality, low cost, easily accessible health care system America needs,” Baucus said in a statement.
Sebelius overcame some initial questions about her finances, including a need to pay back taxes. Some of the stronger opposition to her came after she disclosed that she received campaign funds from a doctor under scrutiny for performing late-term abortions.
“I cannot support the nomination of someone to be the leader of our health and human services department who does not respect human life. That is why I will be voting against Governor Sebelius,” said Republican Senator Jim Bunning.
In the final breakdown, two independents and nine Republicans joined 54 Democrats in voting in favor of confirmation, while 31 Republicans voted against. Three lawmakers did not vote.
Obama chose Sebelius after his first pick for the post, former Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle, withdrew amid a controversy over unpaid taxes.
Senator Arlen Specter, who announced earlier in the day he was defecting from the Republican party to become a Democrat, voted in favor of confirmation.
Sebelius\’s confirmation fills the final vacancy in Obama\’s cabinet on his 99th day in office.