(Updates with Obama comments beginning with seventh paragraph.)
By Mike Dorning and Annie Linskey
April 11 (Bloomberg) -- The departure of Kathleen Sebelius from President Barack Obama’s cabinet removes a focal point for criticism over Obamacare’s troubled rollout, right at a moment when the White House can blunt attacks with enrollment numbers that exceeded targets.
Senate confirmation hearings on the president’s choice to succeed Sebelius as Health and Human Services secretary, budget director Sylvia Mathews Burwell, will give Republicans days of media exposure for their criticism of a program that remains unpopular.
Those hearings will now be held months ahead of midterm congressional elections, helping diminish the impact on voters.
Sebelius’s departure also addresses demands from some Democrats for a change at the department to demonstrate that Obama recognizes the difficulties, political and practical, caused by the flawed startup of the health-care law. Sebelius plans to leave next month.
Sebelius “has become a lightning rod,” Chris Lehane, a communications adviser in the Clinton administration, said. Now “it’s not as easy to use her as a foil in the fall because she’s hit her mark and she won’t be there.”
The Obama administration set the stage for the exit hours before news of it leaked out. Sebelius, 65, delivered to a Senate committee the word that enrollment in Obamacare’s health plans had reached 7.5 million, exceeding a first-year projection of 7 million made by the Congressional Budget Office.
Obama alluded to both early stumbles with the federal insurance exchange and the enrollment total in a White House ceremony this morning announcing Sebelius’s resignation and his pick to replace her.
“Yes, we lost the first quarter of open enrollment period with the problems with healthcare.gov,” Obama said. “But under Kathleen’s leadership her team at HHS turned the corner, got it fixed, got the job done, and the final score speaks for itself.”
Obama said Sebelius let him know last month of her desire to leave once the enrollment was done.
The choice of Burwell, 48, currently director of the Office of Management and Budget, permits an expedited confirmation process. She was approved by the Senate just one year ago, by a 96-0 vote.
“It will help the confirmation process that Sylvia just recently went through it,” said Jim Manley, a former top aide to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat. “I still expect it to be nothing short of brutal.”
Obama praised Burwell, a former president of the Wal-Mart Foundation and head of the global development program at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, as “a proven manager” who can “deliver excellent results at the highest levels.”
Republican leaders seized on Sebelius’s departure to criticize the health-care law anew.
“Obamacare has been a rolling disaster, and her resignation is cold comfort to the millions of Americans who were deceived about what it would mean for them and their families,” Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said in a statement. He said that he hopes Burwell’s confirmation hearings will be “the start of a candid conversation about Obamacare’s shortcomings.”
Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus said Sebelius “oversaw a disastrous rollout of Obamacare, but anyone can see that there are more problems on the way.”
Levi Russell, a spokesman for Americans for Prosperity, a free-market advocacy group founded by the billionaire Koch Brothers, predicted tough confirmation hearings to come.
“There are still a lot of unanswered questions,” Russell said. “Where the money went and how so much was spent on a total failure.”
Republicans have attacked the law since it passed Congress in 2010 with only Democratic support. They were given fresh ammunition in October when website intended as the main gateway to federal health-care exchanges was plagued by delays and error messages just as enrollment was supposed to get underway.
The next month, Obama was forced to apologize when thousands of individual insurance plans were canceled after he had repeatedly promised that people who liked their health plans would be able to keep them.
Criticism of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is a central theme of Republican campaign messages going into November congressional elections.
Thirty-six Senate seats will be up for grabs in November: 21 occupied by Democrats and 15 by Republicans. Most of the races rated as competitive by non-partisan analysts are in states currently in the hands of Democrats. Republicans would need a net gain of six seats to get a majority in the Senate, giving them control of both chambers of Congress.
To win those seats, Republicans are seeking to exploit continuing public discontent with the law.
Likely voters oppose the health care law 55 percent to 42 percent, according to a George Washington University Battleground Poll taken March 16-20.
There have been 49,000 commercials broadcast with an anti-Obamacare message his election cycle through April 8, according to New York-based Kantar Media’s CMAG data. Americans for Prosperity funded almost 40 percent of those commercials.
Republican pollster Bill McInturff said he expects both Sebelius’s resignation and confirmation hearings on her successor will have “zero impact” on the political climate going in to the November congressional elections.
“Almost all cabinet secretaries are generally unknown to the public and the coming and goings don’t matter,” McInturff said. “What matters is whether the Obamacare program works, not who is the secretary.”