WASHINGTON -- Prepare to see a lot of Donna Shalala on C-SPAN.
As most House members await their committee assignments, Shalala has already been assigned to the Rules Committee, a role that cements her status as an attack dog for Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi and will require hours of sparring with Republicans on the House floor.
Shalala's work began on Wednesday when she led the debate on a package that would compel the House of Representatives' chief lawyer to fight an ongoing lawsuit by conservative-led states, including Florida, which want to end Obamacare.
"This case is a backhanded way to do what Republicans could not do legislatively, repeal the ACA (Affordable Care Act) and take away comprehensive health insurance from millions of Americans," Shalala said on the House floor. "I represent a district that has the highest number of people, more than 100,000, enrolled in the ACA. Whether you get your health insurance from your employer, from Medicare, Medicaid or the marketplace, you have something to lose if this disastrous court case is upheld."
After thanking Shalala for her time as former President Bill Clinton's Health and Human Services secretary, Republican Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma began attacking the plan.
"In essence, the House will be giving Speaker Pelosi the authority to intervene in this lawsuit on behalf of the entire House of Representatives," Cole said. "It really isn't a surprise that the Democrats' poorly drafted health care law finds itself in legal trouble."
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But since Republicans lost 40 seats and their House majority in November, Cole can do little more than debate. In contrast, Shalala and her Democratic colleagues on the committee, including Florida Rep. Alcee Hastings, will have the power to shape the Democrats' legislative priorities over the next two years.
"The speaker asked me whether I was willing to do it," Shalala said. "Alcee Hastings urged me to do it because he said ... I'd learn every issue as part of the Rules and (Rules chairman Jim) McGovern assured me, as did the health committee chairs, that I still would be deeply involved in health care. Remember we are in the majority. We have an opportunity to build a consensus, but I have an opportunity to offer amendments myself, which will likely to be listened to very carefully, particularly in areas where I have expertise."
Shalala's appointment to the Rules Committee was made earlier than most of her colleagues, a signal that the committee's work is essential to the Democrats' early agenda as other committees are still gearing up after eight years of Republican control.
And though most of the debate on the House floor comes in the form of prewritten speeches by various members, Shalala has more responsibility to debate Republican arguments in real-time.