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WASHINGTON — Despite Republican demands for her resignation, Kathleen Sebelius is likely to keep her job as secretary of Health and Human Services and her role as the public face of the Affordable Care Act. After more than three hours of being grilled at a House committee Wednesday, the better question might be why, exactly, does she want it?
After apologizing to Americans for this month's troubled rollout of the federal health-exchange website, Sebelius told the Energy and Commerce Committee that she was the one who should be held responsible.
"Hold me accountable for the debacle," she said when Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., suggested one of her deputies was to blame. "I'm responsible."
Later, Rep. Gregg Harper, R-Miss., argued that President Obama should bear the ultimate responsibility.
"No, sir, we are responsible," Sebelius replied. When he persisted, she finally said with exasperation, "Whatever — yes, he is the president."
Whether she is responsible or not, there is little chance Obama would demand or even desire Sebelius' exit from the hot seat. For a president under fire, having an aide who has become a lightning rod during a controversy in fact can be a useful division of duties. Soon after Sebelius finally left the hearing room, Obama was boarding Air Force One to make a speech about his signature health care law before an audience in Boston,
During the flight to Boston, the White House affirmed Obama's support of the embattled secretary. "The president has complete confidence in Secretary Sebelius," spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters traveling with the president
It is rare for a Cabinet member to be fired, says Paul Light, a political scientist at New York University who studies public administration.
"We have no tradition in this country of holding Cabinet members accountable for lower-level or even high-level failures," he says, ticking off examples at the Homeland Security, Energy and Justice departments during the Obama administration. "If (Janet) Napolitano could not be fired over the Christmas Day bombing plot and (Steven) Chu couldn't be fired over Solyndra and (Eric) Holder has survived over several meltdowns at Justice, including Fast and Furious, why would Sebelius be fired for what appears to be a blended failure between the contractors and her department?"
Only a handful of officials in the Obama administration have been fired or made a hasty exit in the wake of controversy, none of them top policymakers and most of them for embarrassing public missteps: national security aide Jofi Joseph for posting anonymous, insulting messages on Twitter. Gen. Stanley McChrystal after criticizing the president in an interview with Rolling Stone. White House social secretary Desiree Rogers after party crashers made it into a state dinner.
For her part Wednesday, Sebelius kept her temper through the contentious hearing (though John Stanton of Buzzfeed posted a bit of an illustrative video that he said showed her giving "a master class in eye-rolling") and resisted all efforts to force her to make actual news. That represented a win, says former Obama Justice Department spokesman Matthew Miller. "Success in hearings = no embarrassing statements/YouTube moments," he tweeted.
She sat alone at the long hearing table with aides lined up in chairs behind her. The hotly anticipated hearing had been billed as an investigation into the website's problems. It was actually more like a speech-making opportunity for Democrats defending the law and Republicans criticizing it.
In some cases, lawmakers who were initially limited to four minutes each and then to two minutes didn't actually seem to want to devote their limited time to allow Sebelius to answers their questions, interrupting her as she began to speak to pose another.
"Thank you for responding when you were given the opportunity to respond," New York Democrat Paul Tonko said when his turn came.
At least three Republican senators have asked that Sebelius step down — including Pat Roberts of Kansas, a former supporter and family friend — and 32 Republican House members signed a letter to Obama last week calling for her resignation. When the hearing ended, Republican National Chairman Reince Priebus renewed calls for her ouster: "If she worked for a private company, she would have been weeks ago," he said.
Three of those who signed the letter are members of the committee: Phil Gingrey of Georgia, Pete Olson of Texas and Mike Pompeo of Kansas. Pompeo was one of a series of lawmakers who made Wizard of Oz references as they questioned Sebelius, the former two-term governor of Kansas. The iconic movie provided fodder for both sides.
"When we pull back the curtain on the Affordable Care Act, I think people are finding it's not exactly what they're going to have worked so hard to find their way to as well," Pompeo said, just like in the movie. "People went to see the Wizard because of the wonderful things he did," Democrat Bruce Braley of Iowa insisted. "The Affordable Care Act is doing some great things in Iowa."
"We're not in Kansas anymore," Republican Rep. Joe Barton of Texas told Sebelius, accusing officials of living in a "parallel universe" that didn't acknowledge the problems with Obamacare. "I know we're not in Kansas anymore, but I do increasingly think we're in Oz because of what I see here," Frank Pallone, D-N.J., sarcastically replied.
On that, Sebelius just might agree.
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