WASHINGTON - Abruptly on the spot as the new face of "Obamacare," Sylvia Mathews Burwell faces steep challenges, both logistical and political.
Burwell, until now White House budget director, was named by President Barack Obama on Friday to replace Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, who oversaw the messy rollout of the health care overhaul. Now the new secretary must keep the complex program running smoothly and somehow help restore a cooperative dialogue with Republicans who are hoping to use the law's problems to regain control of the Senate in November.
At an upbeat Rose Garden event, Obama showered praise on Sebelius, a hero for his party's liberal base, whose impending retirement had been a tightly guarded secret.
The president ignored calls for Sebelius to resign last fall, after the website for consumers to enroll in new coverage experienced weeks of crippling technical problems. Last month, as it started to look like sign-ups would beat expectations, Sebelius approached the White House about stepping aside, officials said.
"Under Kathleen's leadership, her team at HHS turned the corner, got it fixed, got the job done," Obama said. "And the final score speaks for itself." About 7.5 million people have signed up for subsidized private health insurance through the new law, exceeding an original target of 7 million widely thought to be unattainable because of the website problems.
Obama quickly pivoted to Burwell, 48, a low-profile Washington veteran now serving as his budget chief. He stressed her role last year in helping to end a government shutdown and reach a two-year budget deal with a politically divided Congress.