Five House Republicans from Louisiana want to see the state's Senate delegation try to delay confirmation of Sylvia Mathews Burwell to be Health and Human Services secretary until they get assurances about equitable enforcement of health care law provisions.
It's likely to be an ill-fated exercise, one that's clearly about pressuring Democratic Sen. Mary L. Landrieu.
"Families across Louisiana have faced cancelled health insurance plans, rising health insurance premiums, and the loss of access to doctors and hospitals while watching the Administration pick political favorites through selective exemptions from the ACA. It is wholly unfair for families to still be threatened with penalties from the IRS at the same time as insurance companies and businesses are granted unilateral relief," the letter said. "Please join us in calling for fairness for all under the law by placing a hold on Ms. Burwell's nomination until she agrees to provide equitable treatment for all Americans under the Affordable Care Act."
In a brief interview with CQ Roll Call, lead signatory Steve Scalise, R-La., suggested that, Burwell might pledge to expand a hardship exemption under Obamacare to everyone.
"Clearly President Obama has not enforced the law fairly and neither has Secretary Sebelius," Scalise said of the outgoing HHS leader. "They've left regular hardworking taxpayers in a lurch.
"We've asked our two senators ... to seek a hold if she doesn't in fact make that commitment," he said.
Scalise and his fellow Louisiana Republicans are making a request that lacks teeth to stop or even significantly delay Burwell's confirmation. In aftermath of last year's deployment of the "nuclear" option to effectively change Senate rules with a simple majority vote, only a majority is needed to get a Cabinet secretary through to confirmation.
That means even a united GOP front in the Senate using Burwell as a proxy in the battle over what Republicans view as improper executive actions to make changes to the health care law would not imperil her confirmation.
With 55 members of the Senate Democratic caucus, a hold from Sen. David Vitter, R-La., would seem unlikely to hold water.
"They still need a majority," Scalise said when asked about the effect of the recent changes in Senate procedure, clearly seeking to corner Landrieu. The Louisiana Democrat is facing a significant 2014 challenge from GOP Rep. Bill Cassidy, who signed on to the letter with Scalise, Charles Boustany Jr., John Fleming and Vance McAllister.
" would have to stand up to Harry Reid," Scalise said.
The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee is expected to hold a hearing on Burwell's nomination on May 8. Once cleared for floor consideration, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid could quickly move to limit debate by filing cloture, which under the precedent established last year would no longer require the traditional 60 votes.
Scalise did note that some potential changes or exemptions would fall outside the purview of HHS, since tax provisions belong to the Department of the Treasury, but he cited the expansion of the hardship exemption — which would effectively waive the penalty tax for not carrying "minimum essential coverage" — as one possibility.