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Conflicting Reports on Sebelius to HHS; Still a Strong Frontrunner

A widely-discussed New York Times piece this morning, citing advisers and Administration officials, suggested that Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius had emerged as the leading candidate for Health and Human Services Secretary, the post for which initial nominee Tom Daschle withdrew two weeks ago.

Advisers described her as “the leading candidate,” although they said other names were still in discussion and emphasized that no final decision had been made.

Despite other concordant reports citing White House officials on condition of anonymity, including from Juliana Goldman (Bloomberg) and Caren Bohan (Reuters), there is some small pushback going on right now.

A White House spokesman told FiveThirtyEight that no decision has been made, but that Sebelius is under consideration.

A CBS News’ headline today reads: “Reports On Sebelius As HHS Secretary Are Premature, Source Tells CBS News.”

What remains unclear is whether, stung by a series of false starts on Cabinet nominations in recent weeks, the White House is taking extra care to dot all the “i”s and cross all the “t”s before making an announcement, or whether other rumored nominees Gov. Phil Bredesen (D-TN), former Gov. John Kitzhaber (D-OR), or Obama’s transition chief of staff John Podesta are truly still in the running. TPM’s Matt Cooper is hearing that it’s the former, noting that “outside groups following this closely tell me that Sebelius is undergoing final vetting and the White House wants to be extra, extra careful not to have this one blow up.”

Republican Senators and the NRSC would seem to have every incentive in not having to run against Sebelius in Kansas in 2010. Thus, it’s hard to imagine any kind of tough fight with an HHS nomination. Perhaps that’s one of her biggest appeals from the White House’s perspective, a smooth confirmation after a recent series of Cabinet misfires.

The White House will be hosting the National Governors Association Sunday night, and both Sebelius and Bredesen will be present. Having an announcement prior to Obama’s Tuesday night address to a joint session of Congress (a pseudo-State-of-the-Union address) would seem the optically obvious path.

Reports, including this from the Wall Street Journal, suggest that, if selected, Sebelius would only become HHS Secretary, and would not head the White House Office of Health Reform.

In the Democratic-oriented blogosphere, who seem to have gotten the non-starter reaction on their collective favored candidate, former Vermont Governor and DNC Chairman Howard Dean, the most clear opposition from Obama’s own party has focused on Bredesen. From DailyKos to Huffington Post to AMERICAblog to The American Prospect to The New Republic, the opposition to Bredesen centers on mistrusting his role as HMO entrepreneur and effective health care reformer at a time when massive reform is needed.

The opposition to Sebelius from Democrats is more strategy-oriented, if one assumes Sebelius would want to run for Sam Brownback’s Senate seat in 2010. As Nate updated earlier today, if Sebelius is off the board, so is the prospect of Democrats picking up a valuable seat in the Kansas race. While major health care reform is expected to be a large policy agenda prior to the 2010 midterms, nobody thinks that critical votes in the 112th Congress won’t be needed. Democrats are going to need every ally possible in a Senate that no longer seems to need a simple majority but a 60-vote majority to pass legislation. If Sebelius indeed gets the nod, it’s clear that Republicans would have major reason to celebrate a guaranteed hold along with the opportunity to consolidate resources in defending fewer seats. Losing the Daschle nomination may have cost Democrats a Senate seat pickup.