Senator Makes Good on Vow to Block OPM Nominee

OPM nominee Beth Cobert testifies before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. OPM nominee Beth Cobert testifies before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

Sen. David Vitter on Thursday made good on an earlier threat to place a hold on President Obama’s nomination of Beth Cobert to move from acting to permanent status as director of the Office of Personnel Management.

“Time for OPM to Fess Up on Washington’s Obamacare Exemption,” Vitter proclaimed in a statement declaring that he will block her confirmation floor vote until Cobert responds to his request for information. At issue are internal deliberations that led up to OPM’s October 2013 decision to allow congressional staff to obtain health insurance without using the District of Columbia’s exchange for individuals.

“As much as federal bureaucrats enjoy hiding behind layers of red tape, we have now reached the point where OPM can no longer avoid explaining how Congress was allowed to purchase health insurance as a small business – when it clearly is not,” said Vitter, a Republican from Louisiana. “Ms. Cobert’s nomination will not move forward in any capacity until the American people have received answers as to why Washington’s Obamacare Exemption exists.”

Cobert, whose nomination cleared the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on Feb. 10, also faces a challenge to her eligibility to serve as acting OPM director since her agency’s inspector general published a legal interpretation saying her November nomination negated her subsequent actions running OPM. She also faces a subpoena from the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee seeking more documents on the June 2015 breach of OPM online personnel records.

In his Feb. 24 letter to Cobert, Vitter asked Cobert to clarify whether Congress is considered a large or small employer under the Affordable Care Act—a query he has also directed at the Internal Revenue Service, which recently sent congressional employees a tax form labeled as being for large employers.

Asked to comment, an OPM spokesman referred to comments made Thursday morning at a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing on security clearance reform.

Both Chairman Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, and ranking member Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., at the hearing promised to write to the senators to urge them to approve Cobert’s nomination. “I find her to be a very competent person who is a breath of fresh air who actually has the background to run this agency,” Chaffetz said. “I want to be one that’s counted as supporting her nomination, and I think that the country will be better off—the government will be better off—confirming her presence and allowing her to be the director fully confirmed as soon as possible.”  

Cummings focused on broader political motivations.  “As we all know, Republicans are threatening to block anyone the president nominates to the Supreme Court—for political reasons,” he said. “In the same way, they are stalling Ms. Cobert’s nomination despite the fact that she has been widely praised for turning things around at the agency.” He quoted praise for Cobert from Senate committee Chairman Ron Johnson, R-Wis., and now-departed OPM Inspector General Patrick McFarland.

“There is absolutely no reason to continue playing politics,” Cummings said, “and I hope every member of our committee will join me today in asking the Senate to confirm President Obama’s nomination for this position as soon as possible.”

Vitter, who chairs the Senate Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee, ran unsuccessfully for governor of Louisiana last year and had declined to seek reelection to the Senate this year.

Eric Katz contributed to this report

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