The White House Doubles Down on Donald Berwick

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Yesterday evening, the Obama Administration announced it was renominating Dr. Donald Berwick to be head of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS). The White House formally nominated Berwick last year as well, but installed him via recess appointment to avoid a contentious Senate confirmation hearing. Berwick has been on the job since July 2010.

Berwick’s current recess appointment is good until the end of this year. I was among those who (naively) thought the Administration might allow Berwick’s appointment to expire, so the post could be filled with someone who wasn’t knighted by the Queen of England for his work with the much maligned UK’s National Health Service. Well, apparently, the Administration and Berwick himself think this is a battle worth fighting. And a battle it will be. Reports Politico:

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) called the renomination “a disappointing decision.”

“A day after the president committed to coming together to move our country forward, he’s chosen to renominate one of his most contentious nominees to head an agency that impacts the lives of more than 100 million Americans,” said Hatch, who is the ranking member on the Senate Finance Committee.

That the White House is willing to spend more political capital on Berwick could mean any number of things. I asked an Administration official about the strategy behind the Berwick renomination and was told via e-mail, “We’ve always said he’s far and away the best-suited for this job, and we’ve always said we’d seek to get him confirmed. Simple as that. “

Of course, it’s not that simple. The White House is probably banking on the fact that Berwick’s time as CMS chief can be used to prove he isn’t bent on “rationing” care and socializing the U.S. health care system, as Republicans have charged. Indeed, so far, Berwick has not make any major unpredicted moves at CMS that put him in a bad political light. Secondly, I think the White House truly believes the public is tiring of the health care reform war and that a new congressional fight over Berwick won’t garner the kind of rapt attention it would have in 2010. A good poll out this week from the Kaiser Family Foundation showed an uptick in opposition to the Affordable Care Act but weaker support for repealing or defunding the law.

Still, it’s far from certain that Berwick can actually get confirmed, with the Democratic majority smaller than it was last time around. No word yet on whether the White House ever intends to lift the media blackout on Berwick and let him be interviewed by the media.