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Kathleen Sebelius tapped to lead HHS

Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius is President Barack Obama's choice for secretary of health and human services, a White House source said Saturday.

The source, who was not authorized to speak on the record, said Obama will formally announce thenomination on Monday.

The Sebelius pick caps a week in which Obama underscored his resolve to pass a major health careoverhaul this year. He issued a challenge to Congress in his speech Tuesday, and followed upThursday with a budget that requested an eye-popping $634 billion over 10 years, which theadministration called a "down payment on coverage for all." This week, Obama will host lawmakersof both parties and representatives of major interest groups, from insurers to drug companies toconsumers, at a White House summit on health care reform.

Sebelius, 60, is seen as a solid choice to head HHS because as a governor responsible for theMedicaid program in Kansas, she faced the pressure of rising health care costs directly, and sawhow hard it is to expand coverage, particularly in bad economic times. She is also familiar with theinsurance industry, a key interest group in the health care debate. Before becoming governor, sheserved as insurance commissioner, and her fellow state commissioners selected her to be nationalpresident of their association.

However, Sebelius lacks the deep Washington connections of former Senate Majority Leader TomDaschle, Obama's first pick for the job. Daschle, who withdrew after disclosing he had failed to pay$140,000 in taxes and interest, was on a first name basis with most of the members of the Senate.And it's in the Senate where many expect Obama's health care effort to succeed or fail.

Originally, Daschle was to hold both the position of HHS secretary and a top White House postdirecting the health reform effort. An administration official said Saturday the White House positionwill not go to Sebelius, but will be filled by another person.

Sebelius had been seen the leading candidate for HHS for several weeks and word of herappointment was greeted favorably by both those who favor the expansion of health care coverageand health insurers.

"Together with the president's speech to Congress, and his big health care investment in thebudget, the president's appointment of Gov. Sebelius once again makes clear his intention ofachieving meaningful health care reform this year," said Ron Pollack, executive director of FamiliesUSA, a liberal advocacy group that has worked for years to expand health care coverage.

"Gov. Sebelius is the right person to move the president's health care agenda forward," said RobertZirkelbach, a spokesman for America's Health Insurance Plan, the major trade group representinginsurers. "She has a wealth of experience of health care issues and has a legislative history ofworking with both sides of the aisle." Abortion foes strongly oppose Sebelius because she once had areception attended by a late-term abortion provider who now faces criminal charges. Democrats saythere was never any doubt that Obama would appoint an HHS secretary who supports abortionrights.

Sebelius will be subject to confirmation by the Democratic-controlled Senate.

The Kansas governor was an early Obama supporter and a finalist for Obama's ticket before hepicked Joe Biden for vice president.

During the general election campaign, she spent 24 days stumping for Obama in 16 states, includingkey battlegrounds such as Colorado, Florida, Indiana, North Carolina Ohio and Pennsylvania.

Some Democrats in Kansas believe her endorsement of Obama over Hillary Rodham Clinton inJanuary 2008 helped boost him to an overwhelming victory in the state's Democratic caucuses.

Some Democrats have said she has built a solid and even close relationship with Obama, gaininghis trust.

Her name had been floated for several Cabinet posts, but she removed herself from considerationin December, citing Kansas' budget problems that needed her attention.

She comes from a strong political family. Her father, John Gilligan, was the governor of Ohio in1971-75, making them the only father-daughter governors in U.S. history.

National party circles have buzzed about Sebelius since she won her first term as governor in GOP-leaning Kansas in 2002, aided by her image as a no-nonsense administrator and consumeradvocate.

Party leaders have portrayed her as someone who has been able to attract support from moderateRepublicans and independent voters.

She is routinely described as a success at finding bipartisan solutions and has long said addressingrising health care costs and making sure more people have coverage are top priorities for her asgovernor.

But she's often found her ambitions frustrated by Republican legislators who are wary of expandinggovernment and prefer measures that help people find private insurance.

Yet legislators in both parties agree the state has made some progress on health care sinceSebelius became governor in January 2003.

The state has expanded cancer screenings, allowed more Kansans can keep their health insuranceup to 18 months after leaving their jobs and granted income tax deductions that helped someKansans lower their insurance costs.

It also has increased funding for "safety net" clinics, expanded state medical and dental coveragefor pregnant women and started no-interest loans to help small businesses form associations toprovide health plans for employees.

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