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Senate Panel Confronts Health "Czar" Question

5339587Republicans and some Democrats have expressed concerns about the number of so-called "czars" leading initiatives from the White House, but all of the Democrats in a Senate panel joined together Friday to shoot down a Republican attempt to curtail President Obama's use of "czars," specifically for health care reform.

Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) on Friday told his fellow Senate Finance Committee members he wanted any "czars" handling health care issues to be subject to the Senate confirmation process. He submitted the idea as an amendment to the health care legislation the committee is currently modifying.

The Obama administration includes at least 18 officials, in charge of everything from closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay to cleaning up the Great Lakes, who have not been confirmed by the Senate. These officials are typically dubbed "czars," an unofficial title that dates back through a number of administrations.

"There's almost a shadow cabinet that's being developed," Ensign said. "It started... with a czar here and a czar there, but it's completely out of control now."

Ensign's amendment would have subjected Nancy-Ann DeParle, the Director of the White House Office of Health Reform, to Senate confirmation. The senator said the amendment addressed a question of the balance of powers, since the Senate cannot currently compel DeParle to testify in front of Congress.

Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and other Democrats argued the officials were necessary since the confirmation process for cabinet members is so slow.

"Many times the administration has complained they don't have their people, so they can't get their work done," Baucus said.

In fact, Baucus pointed out, just yesterday Republican leadership in the Senate announced they would block confirmation votes for all pending Department of Health and Human Services nominees until the HHS reversed a directive it gave to the health insurance company Humana earlier this week.

The department told Humana on Monday that it had to stop sending letters to its beneficiaries claiming that seniors would lose benefits because of Democrats' health care reforms. Humana's letters broke federal regulations, the HHS said.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and seven other Republicans wrote a letter to HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius threatening to block the the confirmation process, according to the Associated Press. Humana is headquartered in McConnnell's home state of Kentucky.

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) was reportedly one of the Republicans to sign the letter. As the top Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, he voted in favor of Ensign's amendment to subject DeParle to confirmation.

"All these holds that currently exist on health nominees is a problem," Baucus said.

Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) asked Ensign whether he would be willing to ask Senate leadership to lift the holds, given that he wanted to subject one more health official to confirmation. Ensign replied that Democrats put holds on the last administration's nominees. He acknowledged that past administrations used "czars," but said that something should be done about it now.

Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) said it is within the rights of the president to appoint unconfirmed officials, but he agreed that there are too many "czars."

"It strips the people who have been given that authority (of Senate confirmation) the ablity to get things done," he said.

He opposed Ensign's amendment, however, on the grounds that the issue should be addressed comprehensively -- not just with respect to health "czars."

The committee ultimately voted down Ensign's amendment by a vote of 13 to 10.

Since Mr. Obama's so-called "green jobs czar" Van Jones resigned over controversial affiliations, both Democrats and Republicans have questioned the unconfirmed appointments. Earlier this month, Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wisc.) sent the White House a letter asking them to explain how such appointments were constitutional.

On CBSNews.com's Washington Unplugged on Wednesday, Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) said that congressional committees could exert more authority over "czars" by issuing them subpoenas to testify or tightly controlling their department budgets. He said, however, that Democrats are not willing to do that to the Democratic administration.

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