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HHS nominee faces GOP questions on health law

Senators Lamar Alexander (left), Republican of Tennessee, and Tom Harkin, Democrat of Iowa, with Sylvia Burwell.

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Senators Lamar Alexander (left), Republican of Tennessee, and Tom Harkin, Democrat of Iowa, with Sylvia Burwell.

WASHINGTON — President Obama’s nominee for health secretary drew support from Republican senators Thursday even as they challenged the health law she would be charged with carrying out.

Sylvia Mathews Burwell defended the Affordable Care Act, asserting that it has improved the economy, held down the growth of health costs, reduced premiums, and expanded coverage.

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The law ‘‘is making a positive difference in the lives of our families and our communities,’’ Burwell, who now serves as Obama’s budget director, said in testimony before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, the first of two Senate committees that will hold hearings on her nomination to lead the Health and Human Services Department.

Republican senators disagreed. The top committee Republican, Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, warned her that Republicans hope to retake the Senate in November and scale back the law in numerous ways.

‘‘Republicans would like to repair the damage Obamacare has done,’’ Alexander said.

But at the same time, Alexander cited Burwell’s ‘‘reputation for competence,’’ and she was effusively introduced at the hearing by another Republican, Senator John McCain of Arizona. Senator Richard Burr, Republican of North Carolina, declared he plans to vote in favor of her nomination, calling her a ‘‘tremendous asset.’’

The exchanges point to a smooth confirmation for Burwell, 48, even as her nomination hearings allow Republicans to focus renewed election-year attention on the unpopular health law.

‘What we are trying to do is common sense implementation within the law.’

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Republicans stacked a large pile of documents behind the dais wrapped up in red tape and labeled ‘‘Obamacare Regulations,’’ and prodded Burwell on controversial aspects of the law, asking if she aimed to turn it into a fully government-run system like Medicare — Burwell indicated she did not — or to change any more of its requirements.

‘‘What we are trying to do is common sense implementation within the law. That is the objective,’’ Burwell replied.

Burwell was confirmed as budget director last year on a 96-0 vote, and no senator has announced opposition so far to her nomination to the HHS post.

She is Obama’s choice to replace Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, who resigned last month after presiding over passage of the health law and the disastrous rollout of the federal enrollment website. Sebelius announced her departure just as the law had begun to recover with stronger-than-expected sign-up numbers.

Burwell faces significant challenges in sustaining that momentum next year. The federal HealthCare.gov website will be called on to handle more states, with less money for consumer outreach.

Burwell can claim the support of the health insurance industry. Karen Ignagni, head of America’s Health Insurance Plans, called her ‘‘uniquely qualified to lead HHS during this critical time.’’

If confirmed, she will preside over a $1 trillion bureaucracy that rivals the Pentagon in complexity.

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