Anyone But Bredesen? The Leading HHS Candidates


Since former senator Tom Daschle withdrew his nomination for Health and Human Services Secretary on Tuesday, the internet has been buzzing with rumors of his potential replacement. Progressives are particularly weary of Phil Bredesen, a second-term Governor of Tennessee who may be “one of the top contenders for the job.”

As Jonathan Cohn explains, Bredesen “presided over massive cuts to Tennessee’s Medicaid program and, by all appearances, relished fighting with advocates for the poor more than the advocates of the cuts.” “I can’t overstate the opposition his nomination would engender in the health advocacy community,” writes Ezra Klein, before noting that in 2005 Bredesen’s wife accepted donations for the renovation of the governor’s mansion from Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Tennessee.

Since Bredesen’s vision for health reform contradict Obama’s health principles, ThinkProgress has compiled a list of alternative nominees.

Gov. Kathleen Sebelius (D-KS)

The Red State Reformer
PRO: As Insurance Commissioner, Sebelius rejected an Indiana company’s bid to gobble up the biggest health insurer in Kansas. As Governor, Sebelius tried to provide health coverage to children under 5 and enacted legislation allowing residents to purchase prescription drugs from Europe and Canada.

CON: Despite her health background and close relationship with Obama, Sebelius doesn’t know Washington.

Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT)

The Appropriator

PRO: From her seat on the Labor, Health, and Human Services-Education Appropriations Subcommittee, DeLauro increased funding for all kinds of medical research and has worked aggressively to lower the rising costs of prescription drugs, pushing the 108th Congress to adopt legislation allowing for drug importation.

CON: As an appropriator, DeLauro has experience funding initiatives but may have little knowledge of how the different parts of the health system interact.

Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL)

The Public Plan Pioneer
PRO: Congresswoman Schakowsky describes her approach to health care as a kind of beefed up “Medicare for all” system. She strongly supports building a public health care plan and has said that public funding will be the most efficient way to finance a health care system.

CON: Schakowsky could be caricatured as a single-payer advocate and may face stiff Republican opposition during confirmation.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR)

The Abolisher
PRO: Wyden has been a persistent advocate of health care and has the right connections to make reform happen. He has introduced bipartisan legislation that abolishes the employer health system and requires employers who had covered their employees to convert the total they spent on insurance into salary increases, allowing workers to purchase coverage on their own.

CON: Wyden’s plan contradicts Obama’s health principles and would likely outrage some health advocates.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI)

The Social Worker

PRO: Stabenow sits on the Senate Finance Committee, where she played a major role in the crafting the SCHIP expansion legislation.The National Organization for Women endorsed Stabenow for the HHS position, highlighting her background as a social worker and her strong support for drug importation from Canada.

CON: Tapping Stabenow would remove a strong health care advocate from the all-important Senate Finance Committee.

Former Sen. Gordon Smith (R-OR)

The Wannabe
PRO: Smith seems to have some genuine bipartisan leanings. During the election, Smith tried to capitalize on Obama’s popularity by including the President in campaign ads, and went so far as to endorse Sen. Ron Wyden’s (D-OR) controversial health care plan. Smith would lend credibility to Obama’s campaign pledge to build a bipartisan cabinet.

CON: Smith has a poor voting record on health care issues and has twice voted against allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices. Smith’s sudden embrace of universal coverage came in the midst of a close re-election campaign and may be suspect.

Jacob “Jack” Lew

The Budget Man
PRO: As a former Director of the Office of Management and Budget under President Clinton, Lew has intimate knowledge of the substance of federal programs, the budget process and appropriations. Lew drafted parts of Clinton’s health care reform legislation and is respected by members of both parties.

CON: Lew’s work at Citigroup could provide ammunition for a confirmation hearing. He is also currently serving as Deputy Secretary of State.

David Cutler

The Policy Wonk
PRO: Cutler helped draft the Clinton’s health plan and was an architects of Obama’s health proposal. In fact, he has already been tapped to advise the President on health policy.

CON: Cutler left Washington in 1994 to return to his full time duties at Harvard University. While he has previously advised former Democratic presidential nominees John Kerry and Bill Bradley, he may lack Hill connections.

Judy Feder

The Health Reformer
PRO: Feder is widely credited with setting the stage for the health reform debate of the 1990s and has worked to expand health insurance coverage as an HHS appointee. Feder is a Professor of Public Policy at Georgetown University and recently ran for Congress in Virginia’s 10th District.

CON: Despite her bona fide policy expertise, Feder is relatively unknown outside of Washington.

Elizabeth Edwards

The Health Blogger

PRO: As a leading spokesperson for health care reform, Edwards has been particularly critical of policies that unfairly penalize Americans for preexisting conditions. Edwards is an effective communicator, a Wonk Room blogger, and is beloved by health advocates.

CON: Edwards is battling incurable cancer. She has also criticized Obama’s health care plan for not including an individual mandate.

Donna Shalala

The Bureaucrat
PRO: As Clinton’s Secretary of Health and Human Services, Shalala played an integral role in launching the State Children’s Health Insurance Program.

CON: Shalala did not play a major role in policy deliberations or build significant Congressional relationships during her eight years as Secretary in the Clinton Administration.


A number of readers have added Howard Dean to the list. And while I’m impressed by the Governor’s health care accomplishments in Vermont, his presidential campaign and his tenure as chairman of the DNC, I intentionally omitted Dean because I do not think that he’s on Obama’s short list.

The reason is this: Dean has few allies in the Obama camp. As Obama’s transition head and CAPAF CEO John Podesta pointed out, Rahm Emanuel “was never negative about Dean, I wouldn’t characterize it as the other way, either.” Jonathan Cohn agrees with me.

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