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Can Kathleen Sebelius survive the terrible Healthcare.gov rollout?
The embattled HHS secretary came in for some tough grilling on Capitol Hill. Start the Sebelius deathwatch!
 
It's been a tough stretch for Sebelius.
It's been a tough stretch for Sebelius. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

On Wednesday, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius testified before the House Energy and Commerce Committee about the botched rollout of Healthcare.gov, the online marketplace for ObamaCare individual insurance policies. The questions weren't exactly friendly, especially from her Republican interlocutors.

Marilyn Tavenner, the head of Medicare and Medicaid Services, got her turn in the hot seat on Tuesday, and Republicans, eager to highlight ObamaCare's glitches, didn't hold back. She apologized for the problems with the website.

Sebelius, who already faces calls to resign from some lawmakers, sounded a similar note, saying she should be held accountable for the failed rollout and telling America, "You deserve better."

That doesn't mean she's stepping down voluntarily. And barring any outlandish slip or monster gaffe, what Sebelius actually says at today's hearing probably won't matter much. But testifying before Congress in itself is "a quintessential station of the Washington deathwatch," says Amy Argetsinger at The Washington Post. Can Sebelius ride out this storm?

She shouldn't, argues William McGurn at the New York Post. In fact, weeks into this ObamaCare fiasco, the real question is "why this woman hasn't yet heard Donald Trump's trademark phrase: 'You're fired'?" After five years as HHS secretary, "if Sebelius isn't to blame, it's hard to imagine who is."

At best, Sebelius was herself ignorant about the problems, in which case she ought to be sacked for incompetence. At worst, she knew all about the problems but kept them from the president, in which case she ought to be fired for dishonesty. There is a third possibility: The president and his Cabinet secretary were in it together. That is, they both knew it wasn't working... but went ahead anyway because they feared the political backlash of delay. If this is true, President Obama will not resign, but he ought to insist at the least that Sebelius fall on her sword to make clear to the American people that there's a new plan and a new leader. [New York Post]

Maybe, but plenty of people are convinced Sebelius isn't going anywhere. Leigh Ann Caldwell at CNN says that's primarily "because Obama has her back." With the president standing squarely behind her, "that's all Sebelius needs at the moment, and she knows it." There's no upside for Obama in canning her, either, Caldwell adds: She's a useful lightning rod, drawing heat away from Obama; replacing her would probably "make the situation worse" for ObamaCare; and there's almost no chance Obama could get a friendly HHS nominee past a Republican filibuster in the Senate.

Sebelius isn't getting the Donald Trump treatment from congressional Democrats, either — even those otherwise critical of the law's rollout. "I think she should stay," Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) told ABC's This Week on Sunday. "And I think she will get the job done."

Sebelius is no doubt strengthened by the the loyalty from her fellow Democrats, but that's not the only reason "it's a mistake to count her out," says Aamer Madhani at USA Today. Yes, she's being skewered by Republicans, Saturday Night Live, and The Daily Show's Jon Stewart, but "Sebelius is no stranger to difficult fights." She's good at winning them, too.

During her time as governor in the deep red state of Kansas, she had high-profile battles with state GOP lawmakers over her controversial decision to prevent the expansion of a coal plant and her halting of the merger of two of the region's largest health care providers. Despite battles with Republicans on environmental issues, education, and health policy during her two terms as governor and as Kansas insurance commissioner, she left office with an approval rating that hovered near 60 percent. [USA Today]

Republicans today would surely be pleased to get a high-profile scalp related to ObamaCare, especially since they essentially got nothing but bad press for shutting down the government over the health program. But GOP lawmakers may not be all that genuinely broken up about Sebelius' continued tenure at HHS. If it's true that she "won't be going anywhere," says McGurn at the New York Post, "that's good news for those of us who hope to see ObamaCare discredited."

 
Peter Weber is a senior editor at TheWeek.com, and has handled the editorial night shift since 2008. A graduate of Northwestern University, Peter has worked at Facts on File and The New York Times Magazine. He speaks Spanish and Italian, and plays in an Austin rock band.

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