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GOP Leaders Mull Retaliation Over Recess Appointment

Bill Clark/Roll Call
Confidants of Sen. Mitch McConnell say Senate Republican leaders are discussing possible retaliatory moves over the recess appointment of Donald Berwick to a key health post.

Senate Republican leaders are considering retaliatory measures in response to President Barack Obama’s decision to use a recess appointment to install Donald Berwick as administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

Fuming over Obama’s move to circumvent Senate confirmation of Berwick absent even a committee hearing, Senate Republicans took to the floor Tuesday to aggressively criticize some of the more controversial statements Berwick has made in praise of the United Kingdom’s government-run health system. In a floor colloquy with fellow Republican Senators, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) mocked Berwick, who was awarded an honorary knighthood by the Queen of England in 2005, as “Sir Donald.”

Speaking to reporters later in the day, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell called the appointment of Berwick during the July Fourth recess period a “truly outrageous” political move. The Kentucky Republican declined to specify what Republicans might do in retaliation, but Senators in his inner circle suggested some action was forthcoming.

“I think the leader is thinking about that. But I wouldn’t want to get ahead of him,” Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) said.

“We will talk about what steps we can take, but we’re not ready to say,” Republican Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) added.

Under the terms of recess appointments prescribed in the Constitution, Berwick will be able to serve until the end of next year. Some Democrats, including Finance Chairman Max Baucus (Mont.), have joined Republicans in voicing their displeasure with Obama’s handling of the Berwick nomination to head CMS.

But others defended the president, contending he had no choice after Republicans signaled their intent to make a political issue of Berwick’s nomination and use his favorable views of the UK’s medical system to disparage the health care reform law signed by Obama in March. In fact, Republicans had made no secret of plans to target Berwick, a pediatrician and college professor, as part of a continuing campaign to highlight what they argue are the new health law’s flaws.

“It is regrettable that [Obama] bypassed the Senate procedures. But it is understandable given the relentless blockade that the Republicans have erected to his nominees,” Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) said. “I think the president’s decision was very prudent to realize that if you wanted to get this guy to work soon on behalf of the American public, you simply had to spare him the nonsense that was clearly coming his way.”

Among Berwick’s public statements highlighted by Republicans was one made in a 2009 interview about health care rationing: “The decision is not whether or not we will ration care — the decision is whether we will ration with our eyes open.”

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