WASHINGTON — Gov. Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas, an early Obama ally with a record of working across party lines, is emerging as the president’s top choice for secretary of health and human services, advisers said Wednesday.
Should she be nominated, Ms. Sebelius would bring eight years of experience as her state’s insurance commissioner as well as six years as a governor running a state Medicaid program.
But with President Obama about to begin a drive to expand health coverage, an issue on which the two parties have deep ideological divisions, her strongest asset in the view of the White House may be her record of navigating partisan politics as a Democrat in one of the country’s most Republican states.
Ms. Sebelius resolved a state budget crisis on Tuesday and plans to be in Washington from Saturday through Tuesday for a meeting of the National Governors’ Association.
Asked about the health and human services job, her spokeswoman, Beth Martino, said the governor was “focused on the economic challenges currently facing Kansas, including our state budget and the impacts of the federal stimulus package.”
Mr. Obama’s first pick for the job, former Senator Tom Daschle, withdrew over his failure to pay $128,000 in taxes until nominated, provoking a storm of criticism and a presidential mea culpa.
With his economic recovery plan signed into law, Mr. Obama plans to turn his attention more to health care next week with a fiscal blueprint that will begin to advance his ideas about covering the uninsured, advisers said. He may also make health care a theme of his prime-time address to a joint session of Congress on Tuesday night, they said.
It remained unclear whether the White House would finish vetting Ms. Sebelius in time to nominate her by next week. Advisers described her as “the leading candidate,” although they said other names were still in discussion and emphasized that no final decision had been made.
After the troubles with Mr. Daschle and other nominees, the White House has intensified its vetting to make sure it thoroughly scrubs its choices before Mr. Obama signs off.
Ms. Sebelius’s family and her administration have both been notably bipartisan. Her father was a Democratic governor of Ohio and her father-in-law was a longtime Republican member of Congress from Kansas. She won her first term with a former Republican businessman as her running mate and a second term with the former Republican state party chairman on her ticket.
Ms. Sebelius became an early supporter of Mr. Obama by endorsing him in January 2008 and was mentioned as a possible vice-presidential nominee. After the election, her name was floated for a variety of possible jobs, including secretary of labor, agriculture or education.
If she becomes health secretary, she will be the fourth woman in the 15-member cabinet, overseeing 65,000 employees and a $700 billion budget. But she is unlikely to also wear the second hat that Mr. Daschle negotiated for himself as White House health czar, a position that could be influential in setting health care policy.
Administration officials said that was a special arrangement for Mr. Daschle, adding that they were still considering what to do about that job.
Should Ms. Sebelius get the cabinet post, she would be replaced as governor by Lt. Gov. Mark Parkinson, the former Republican chairman who switched to the Democratic Party when he ran with Ms. Sebelius in 2006. Mr. Parkinson has said he will not run for governor in 2010.
As Kansas insurance commissioner, Ms. Sebelius helped draft a proposed national bill of rights for patients and blocked the sale of Blue Cross and Blue Shield to an out-of-state company because it would have raised premiums. She served as president of the National Association of Insurance Commissioners and often testified before Congress.
One issue that could draw attention is her stance on abortion. A Roman Catholic who says abortion is wrong, Ms. Sebelius vetoed a bill requiring clinics to report information on why a late-term abortion was performed, drawing the condemnation of the archbishop of Kansas City, Kan.
Health advocates welcomed her candidacy.
“All signs indicate that she would be a terrific choice,” said Representative Pete Stark, Democrat of California and chairman of a major health subcommittee. Ronald F. Pollack, executive director of Families USA, a liberal-leaning consumer group, said Ms. Sebelius “knows health care as well as any governor in the United States.”
A trade group for insurers agreed. Karen M. Ignagni, president of America’s Health Insurance Plans, said Ms. Sebelius would be “a very smart choice” for health secretary.
“She has a good intellect, a big heart and tremendous expertise,” Ms. Ignagni said. “As a blue governor in a red state, she also has lots of experience working across the political aisle.”