The Burwell confirmation hearings: a dud or a grandstand?

With Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius stepping aside, President Obama’s nominee to replace her – Sylvia Mathews Burwell – will soon be facing confirmation hearings before the Senate. First up is the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee on Thursday, with a separate hearing before the Senate Finance Committee to be determined.

Many have presumed that Republican senators will seize Burwell’s confirmation hearings as an opportunity to relitigate Obamacare in all its glory. But Politico suggests otherwise, reporting that “[t]he proxy war over Obamacare that was expected to dominate the Senate in May is looking more and more like a dud.” Given the fairly the fairly positive reception that Burwell’s nomination has drawn from six GOP senators, perhaps the Burwell nomination is shaping up to be a lower key affair than we initially presumed.

But not so fast! Two days after the Politico story, Reuters hears from GOP strategists that “Republicans are relishing the chance to use confirmation hearings for Sylvia Mathews Burwell, President Barack Obama’s nominee as U.S. health secretary, to re-energize their election-year attacks on his signature healthcare initiative.” According to the Reuters story, Republicans are looking to trip Burwell into a gaffe that could win the news cycle; to barrage her with mythical tales of “all of the Obamacare-related disasters”; and to generally cut some good footage for campaign TV ads this fall.

Despite being warned by their better angels, it seems that Republicans still just can’t quit the fantasy that Obamacare has been and will be a calamity. The Burwell hearings present too juicy an opportunity to air grievances and at least traffic in health care-related outrage. What supposed disasters will Burwell be confronted with? From Reuters: “Burwell will be grilled about tax penalties for individuals and businesses that fail to comply with the law’s coverage mandates, as well as the canceled insurance plans that Republicans say belie Obama’s pledge that people would be able to keep their health plans.” And for the sake of senior scaremongering, Burwell will also face questions about “Obamacare[‘s] . . . danger to Medicare benefits.”

So it will be all the old hits: the individual and employer mandates, “if you like your plan, you can keep it,” pulling the plug on granny, etc. Nonetheless, Burwell is widely expected to be easily confirmed. So what gives?

If the confirmation hearings turn out to be, as Politico expects, “a dud,” then maybe this is a sign that Republicans are shifting to reorganize their politics and reelection campaigns around something other than Obamacare. Given the bevy of good news about health care reform enrollment over the past months and mounting current and forthcoming controversies like Common Core, immigration, and climate change regulations, maybe Obamacare is fading as an incendiary central political issue. So if there’s little fire in the Burwell hearings, then maybe this is more evidence that the GOP is standing down against Obamacare.

But conservatives have invested too much time and effort assuring us otherwise – that they will continue to run against Obamacare and make it a central tenet of their very being. They have too much invested to change course now. That’s why I expect that Reuters probably has it right: that Republicans will be unable to resist an opportune vent session over health care reform on Thursday.

But perhaps conservatives are being led astray by all of their investment in fighting Obamacare. They’ve committed years to fighting the law as a brewing totalitarian disaster. Now that the law is proving to be anything but, they haven’t figured out how to course correct. If Republicans keep tying their hopes to a deflating anti-health care reform movement, then their midterm hopes might be skewed by the sunk cost fallacy – that future electoral strategy is being driven by an irrational attachment to past commitments.

The Burwell confirmation hearings are then likely to feature a lot of noise but little fury. She’ll almost certainly be confirmed, but will probably face a lot of soapbox questions – both actual and rhetorical – from Republican senators who have longed to interrogate an HHS official. But health care reform is now a real thing to a large class of people, providing real benefits and real value to their lives. The much-vaunted disasters forecast by the GOP have seldom (if ever) struck, so conservatives must now grope with fighting the law on its own honest terms.

As Jonathan Chait writes, Republicans yearn to “run the kind of obsessive health-care campaign they have longed for since 2010.” They will probably turn Burwell’s confirmation hearings into a grandstand. But if they’re wise, they might make it something else: a last stand.

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