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Obama health secretary nominee pledges bipartisan approach

By David Morgan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Sylvia Mathews Burwell pledged on Thursday to take a fresh bipartisan approach to Congress on the law known as Obamacare, one of the most divisive issues in American politics, if confirmed by the Senate as the new U.S. health secretary.

At a hearing expected to be charged with congressional election rhetoric about President Barack Obama's healthcare law, Burwell said she would build on her record as the current White House budget director by working closely with lawmakers on "our shared priorities" and finding solutions to issues that "transcend parties."

"I have made responses to and engagement with Congress a priority -- working with members on both sides of the aisle to drive towards progress on the issues we all care deeply about," Burwell said in written testimony to the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee.

She also described Obama's Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act in new upbeat terms, saying the law has strengthened the economy and the middle class - two vital issues for Democratic candidates in November's midterm elections that Republicans are trying to turn into a referendum on Obamacare.

Her pledge of bipartisan cooperation could mark a change in the administration's healthcare relations with lawmakers, particularly Republicans, who have complained loudly about a lack of responsiveness under outgoing Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.

The path to confirmation is expected to be a smooth one for Burwell, a 48-year-old technocrat who was nominated by Obama on April 11.

The HELP committee proceedings are the first of two Burwell confirmation hearings. The Senate Finance Committee, which will decide whether to send her nomination to the floor for a vote, is expected to hold a second hearing later this month. Democrats are aiming to finalize her nomination before the U.S. Memorial Day holiday on May 26.

Last year, Burwell sailed through the Senate on a 96-0 vote to become Obama's budget director.

This time, she may end up being confirmed without many Republican 'yes' votes. Republicans see the hearings as perhaps their last chance to grill a senior Obama official publicly about Obamacare before the Nov. 4 ballot.

While readily accepting Burwell's Harvard and Oxford credentials, Republicans want to know whether she will be a dedicated public servant who avoids the partisan fray or a committed Obama insider determined to see the president's policies through at any cost.

"She's obviously very loyal to her boss, which is an admirable quality ... but it raises the burden of pressure on us in the confirmation process to be sure to be thorough," said Senator Johnny Isakson, a Georgia Republican who sits on both confirmation panels.

Burwell has already come under fire from Republicans who contend she will play an unstated political role by portraying Obama's signature domestic policy in the most favorable light during this year's congressional election and the 2016 presidential contest.

The loyalty question goes directly to a Burwell quality that sets her apart from Sebelius, a Washington outsider who joined the administration in 2009 after serving as Kansas governor but never penetrated Obama's inner circle.

A member of the West Wing's top echelon, Burwell as health secretary could wield much greater influence in dealings with stakeholders. They include health insurers and state regulators, who could be the key to keeping Obamacare on an even keel.

"They know that the president really trusts her and that she’s been an insider in White House processes who used to sit at the principal senior staff table,” Obama senior adviser John Podesta, a long-time Burwell associate, told Reuters.

(Reporting by David Morgan; Editing by Caren Bohan and Dan Grebler)

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