WASHINGTON Former Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius was sworn in as U.S. health secretary on Tuesday in an Oval Office ceremony attended by President Barack Obama just hours after the Senate confirmed her nomination.
"We wanted to swear her in right away because we've got a significant public health challenge that requires her immediate attention, and that is the H1N1 flu outbreak," Obama told reporters.
"I'm thrilled that we have Secretary Sebelius taking the reins. She's going to be immediately briefed on the issues that we're working on right now," he said after the ceremony, which was conducted by the executive clerk of the White House with the president holding the Bible on which she took the oath.
After the swearing-in, Sebelius immediately went into a briefing on the flu situation with Obama's Homeland Security adviser John Brennan, White House spokesman Reid Cherlin said.
The Senate confirmed Sebelius as health secretary in a 65-31 vote earlier in the day, filling a crucial spot in Obama's cabinet amid growing fears of a possible swine flu pandemic.
The Senate brushed back Republican opposition to her nomination because of her support for abortion rights. Sebelius was tapped by Obama to lead his push to overhaul the U.S. healthcare system.
But she takes office as U.S. health officials rush to prepare for a possible widespread outbreak of a new strain of flu that has killed scores of people in Mexico and sickened at least 64 in the United States.
The confirmation of Sebelius allows Obama to fill the last open seat in his cabinet. Democrats said the swine flu outbreak made it all the more important to end the delay in filling that pivotal position.
"It is essential for the health of the nation, that president Obama has in place and the nation has in place, a strong secretary of health and human services to make sure that our federal efforts on this potential pandemic are ably coordinated," said Democratic Senator Mark Warner.
The Sebelius nomination had been delayed by Republicans opposed to her support for abortion rights and a failure to initially report the full extent of her campaign contributions from a doctor who performs abortions.
Sebelius, a former insurance commissioner, will lead Obama's push to enact by the end of this year an overhaul of the $2.5 trillion U.S. healthcare industry, one of the main political goals of his administration.
(Reporting by David Alexander and Donna Smith, editing by Todd Eastham and Vicki Allen)