Sebelius escapes abortion showdown

But will the governor be so lucky during her second confirmation hearing?

Published March 31, 2009 10:00PM (EDT)

The religious right is surely disappointed that Kathleen Sebelius' first confirmation hearing as secretary of health and human services didn't end in fisticuffs over abortion. In fact, the cross-examination was kicked off Tuesday with nary a mention of the "a" word.

On Monday, pro-lifers were spoiling for a fight: Thirty "pro-family" advocates pleaded with the Senate to oppose Sebelius' nomination based on "her views on sanctity of life issues" and the archbishop of Washington D.C. warned that even if she is confirmed, the Catholic politician will be banned from receiving Communion in his neck of the woods. But the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee seemed unmoved by all the chest-puffing. That's not to say that abortion wasn't on the radar, but it was overshadowed by health care disagreements and drained of its divisive charge.

Republican senators Tom Coburn and Mike Enzi both made no secret of their pro-life positions. Enzi was rather chummy in voicing his conflicting view: "We may not always agree on every issue," he said. "My hope and expectation, though, is that we will focus on legislating solutions that will make a positive difference in people's lives." Coburn distanced himself from the can't-we-all-just-get-along rhetoric, saying that, as a practicing obstetrician, he finds the administration's plan to reverse Bush's provider conscience clause "rather offensive." Sebelius' response was polite but unyielding: She promised to give him "early warning" about the details of such plans. Later, Coburn asked whether the administration had plans to lift a rule restricting Medicaid funding for RU-486 to cases of rape, incest or where the mother's life is at risk. She responded, in essence: Dude, I'm not confirmed yet, how would I know? But, again, she gave Coburn her word that he would be kept in the loop.

Last week, before for the Communion ban and mass plea to the Senate, Sebelius had a similar stroke of good luck: George Tiller, a Kansas doctor the governor was controversially (though casually) linked to, was acquitted Friday on charges of illegally performing 19 late-term abortions, and Sebelius managed to tranquilize some critics by signing into law a bill that requires Kansas doctors to provide their patients with the option of seeing an ultrasound image before having an abortion. So, be warned: Just as that luck (and sedative) quickly wore off, it's unlikely the abortion issue will get the kid-glove treatment during Thursday's hearing before the Senate Finance Committee.

By Tracy Clark-Flory

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