KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Finally, Republicans and Democrats agree on something: Kathleen Sebelius now faces the biggest crisis of her 27 years in politics.
Three weeks after the Health and Human Services secretary launched the campaign to sign up millions of Americans for health insurance, the ongoing technical meltdown connected with that effort has prompted increasingly loud demands for her resignation — or termination.
That pressure will only grow, observers said, unless the problems go away quickly. Think hours or days, not weeks or months.
“This is her legacy. This is it,” said Ed Haislmaier, a health care expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation. “For better or for worse, she’s tied to the mast on this ship.”
Burdett Loomis, who worked for Sebelius when she was governor of Kansas, agreed.
“Kathleen Sebelius has a big problem,” said Loomis, now a University of Kansas political science professor. “She’s got a rollout that’s pretty much disastrous. … If there’s anyone who understood how important this was, it was Kathleen.”
The pressure on Sebelius to leave government was easily found Wednesday.
The Republican National Committee launched a Web-based petition drive calling for her removal.
“If the president were serious about accountability in his administration,” said RNC Chairman Reince Priebus in a statement, “he would fire Secretary Sebelius.”
Other members of the GOP joined the chorus. Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander said “someone” should be fired over the foul-ups. Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin suggested it should be the former Kansas governor. House Republicans, meanwhile, prepared to open hearings on the health insurance nightmare.
Democrats pushed back. They conceded ongoing issues for hundreds of thousands who want to purchase required health insurance on the federal exchange, but they said blaming Sebelius would not solve those problems.
“This is always a difficult thing with technology,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, in Kansas City to discuss farm policy. “I’m sure Kathleen is focused on this every minute of every day.”
Through a spokesman, Sebelius declined to comment to The Kansas City Star. She spent part of the day at the White House discussing health care reform with private insurers and was set to travel the country promoting the Affordable Care Act, commonly called Obamacare.
In a Tuesday interview with CNN, Sebelius would not directly address the pressure to quit.
“My job is to get this fully implemented and to get the website working right,” she told reporter Sanjay Gupta. “I work at the pleasure of the president. He is singularly focused on making sure we deliver on this promise. That’s what I’m committed to doing.”
But her answer — and her claim that President Barack Obama was largely unaware of problems with the website until it launched Oct. 1 — did little to slow an avalanche of criticism.
Those attacks began almost from the moment the program launched. Sebelius offered a tepid defense of the rollout on “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart,” a forum considered sympathetic to liberals and Obamacare, a week after the shaky launch.
Four days later, longtime friend and Kansas GOP Sen. Pat Roberts called on Sebelius to step down, citing the poor execution of the sign-up.
Other conservatives took the cue. When Sebelius initially declined to testify before Congress about the nearly inoperable website, the criticism grew louder still.
The theme was the same: The buck stops at the secretary’s desk.
“There’s no question she’s taken a very serious hit,” said Peter Goelz, a Democrat and the former managing director of the National Transportation Safety Board. “If they have to postpone this thing significantly, her future is clearly in doubt.”
Friends and onetime colleagues expressed mild surprise at the Obamacare setbacks under Sebelius’ watch.
The 65-year-old HHS secretary was once the insurance commissioner in Kansas, they pointed out, suggesting she should have understood the complexity of the ACA sign-up effort.
Several said Sebelius’ strength lies in combining administrative and technical expertise with political considerations. In the health care rollout, they said, she may have stumbled on both counts.
But Sebelius defenders say she’s getting blamed for problems she could not have prevented.
“She’s at the top of the agency, so she’s going to take the arrows,” said former Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman, who, like Sebelius, is a Democrat and a Kansan. “But she didn’t cause this problem. … It really is unfair to seek her resignation.”
Mark Parkinson, a Republican-turned-Democrat, became the Kansas governor when Sebelius took the job in the Obama administration. He now works in Washington, D.C.
“Kansans know she is a terrific leader,” Parkinson said of Sebelius. “She is fully capable of implementing the ACA.”
Sandy Praeger, the current Republican insurance commissioner in Kansas, said, “It’s not her fault.”
“It will be interesting to see if Kathleen becomes the sacrificial lamb,” she said. “I hope not. … They’ve done the best they can do. There have been politics on both sides.”
Other supporters, though, appear more cautious. At Monday’s White House event touting repairs to the health insurance website, Sebelius was in the Rose Garden audience but not mentioned by Obama.
Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat, campaigned with Sebelius for Obama in 2008. Her statement on the controversy expressed only qualified support for the embattled secretary.
“She’s obviously got her work cut out for her in the coming weeks and months,” McCaskill said. “While I’ll be keeping an eye on how problems with the health care marketplace website are getting fixed, I know she has the skills to rise to the occasion.”
If Sebelius survives the firestorm surrounding the health care law, it may be because she has experience dealing with controversy:
—Abortion opponents were sharply critical of her time in the Kansas governor’s office. The Catholic bishop in her diocese wrote a letter asking her not to “present herself” for communion because of her public stance supporting access to abortion, a dispute that landed her on front pages across the country.
—Abortion was also an issue in her 2009 confirmation hearings before the Senate. She was confirmed by a 65-31 vote, unusually narrow for a Cabinet officer in a president’s first term.
She was not Obama’s first choice. Tom Daschle, a former senator, withdrew after questions were raised about taxes he had failed to pay.
—Sebelius also has been the target of intense criticism for other parts of the Affordable Care Act. She originally proposed requirements that certain religious institutions provide contraceptive insurance coverage for their workers, a move that prompted an outcry and several lawsuits.
She later amended the rule, but many religious organizations — and private companies that claim a religious objection — have continued to complain about it.
—Sebelius also became entangled in controversy over a 2012 speech that included ad-libbed “political remarks.” The U.S. Office of Special Counsel later concluded her remarks violated the Hatch Act, which broadly prohibits government officials from making political statements while working in their official capacities.
Sebelius said she regretted the remarks, but some Republicans said she should resign over that infraction.
—She asked health industry officials to contribute funds for promotion of the ACA, an effort Republicans called improper.
Some observers said Wednesday that Sebelius is likely to survive the political blast furnace because replacing her would be difficult. A new HHS secretary, they said, would face enormous confirmation hurdles — and would take a damaged job if that barrier were cleared.
And the Obama administration has shown past reluctance to push Cabinet members out the door. The White House repeatedly has stressed “full confidence” in Sebelius.
“These guys just don’t cut anybody loose,” said Goelz, the former NTSB director. “That’s not their style.”