Sylvia Mathews Burwell’s next marathon


On a trip to England during the Clinton administration, Sylvia Mathews Burwell accidentally ran a half marathon. Out for a bit of exercise during an otherwise jam-packed trip, Burwell got hopelessly lost. Desperate to get back in time for a meeting, she just kept running until she found her way. She wound up logging 13 miles.

“That’s the longest I’ve ever run,” Burwell told POLITICO recently. “And it was not intentional.”

Intentionally or not, Burwell, who served every single day of the Clinton administration, now finds herself facing another test of endurance and determination: replacing Kathleen Sebelius as secretary of Health and Human Services, the department responsible for implementing Obamacare, in a midterm election year.

(WATCH: Kathleen Sebelius career highlights)

Burwell will take the job — assuming she can get confirmed — heading into a campaign in which Republicans plan to savage Democrats over the troubled roll-out of the health care law. She will be charged by President Barack Obama with deploying her budget wonk bona fides and management expertise — widely praised both inside the White House and out — to ensure that the implementation continues its current momentum. She is also expected to use the genial charm that helped shepherd through the recent bipartisan budget bill to deprive Republicans of an easy target to fire at over Obamacare problems.

The theory among senior Democrats is that Burwell will be both hard for Republicans in the Senate to reject — they confirmed her unanimously for OMB just a year ago — and hard for them to demonize once she’s in the job.

“She is just a brilliant choice,” said Gene Sperling, who recently left the White House and has known Burwell for years. “She is deeply committed and smart on the health care policy and one of the most adroit and conscientious managers I’ve ever met. With her you don’t have to choose between getting a skilled manager versus an experienced policy person. You get both.”

(PHOTOS: 10 Sebelius quotes about the Obamacare website)

Sperling and other current White House officials noted that Burwell has both deep management experience and familiarity with the intricacies of the health care law implementation in which OMB plays a big role. They also believe her relationships with Republicans on the Hill should help ease her confirmation, though administration officials are aware that Republicans will use the hearings as an opportunity to score points on Obamacare and that no confirmation is a sure thing. Part of the reason the White House moved now, a senior Democrat said, is both that Sebelius is “exhausted” and that waiting until any closer to the election would make confirming a new HHS secretary even harder.

In Burwell, senior White House officials believe they have the perfect choice.

“She was obviously instrumental in getting Ryan-Murray through,” a White House official said, referring to the budget deal brokered by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.). “And she was confirmed unanimously. She navigated a lengthy shutdown. She has proved to the president and everyone around here that she is a masterful manager and someone who can really run a process and dig in and figure things out. And she’s very well liked on the Hill.”

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