Kathleen Sebelius won Senate committee approval as health secretary over Republican opposition Tuesday, putting her on track for a final Senate vote in coming days.
Her expected confirmation would complete President Barack Obama's Cabinet, which held its first formal meeting Monday without Sebelius there.
The Senate Finance Committee voted 15 to 8 in favor of sending the nomination of Kansas' two-term Democratic governor to the full Senate. Just two of 10 committee Republicans joined majority Democrats in voting "yes," signaling GOP concerns over Sebelius' ties to a Kansas abortion doctor, as well as some broader skepticism about Obama's health care plans.
Republican senators were under pressure from anti-abortion activists to oppose Sebelius.
But the partisan vote sparked an angry response and an apparent threat from one committee Democrat, Sen. Charles Schumer of New York.
"I was surprised by the fact that so few Republicans supported a moderate, qualified candidate like Gov. Sebelius," Schumer said. "It's an ominous signal of the level of cooperation we can expect from the Republicans on health care."
Schumer then suggested that the vote was an invitation for Democrats to pass health care legislation using a controversial parliamentary maneuver that would pre-empt Republicans from mounting a filibuster to block passage.
Republicans have said such an approach would poison attempts to get a bipartisan deal on one of Obama's top priorities: legislation reshaping the nation's health care system to reduce costs and cover some 50 million uninsured Americans.
The top Finance Committee Republican, Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, disputed Schumer's interpretation of the vote.
"There's no signal. Republicans are at the table on health reform," said Grassley spokeswoman Jill Gerber.
The White House praised the vote. "Gov. Sebelius strongly shares the president's commitment to high-quality, affordable health care for all Americans and if confirmed, will work to bring down the crippling cost of health care and expand coverage," said White House spokeswoman Kate Bedingfield.
Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., said he expected a vote in the full Senate within the week.
Sebelius was Obama's second pick to head the Department of Health and Human Services after his first choice — former Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle — withdrew in February over unpaid taxes.
Sebelius, 60, would oversee a sprawling agency with 65,000 employees, a $750 billion budget and responsibility for the Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Medicare and Medicaid insurance programs for the elderly, disabled and poor — among others.
The committee vote came after several Republicans voiced concerns in recent days about Sebelius' initial failure to disclose to senators the full extent of campaign donations she got from Dr. George Tiller, a late-term abortion doctor who is under investigation by the Kansas medical board. After the discrepancy became public, Sebelius called it an unintentional oversight and corrected the error.
The only senator to speak about Sebelius at Tuesday's committee meeting raised a different concern. Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., questioned Sebelius' commitment to ensuring that the government doesn't try to interfere in Americans' health care choices.
"I believe in the right of every American to choose the doctor, the hospital, the health plan of his or her choice," Kyl said. He contended that Sebelius had displayed "insufficient commitment to these principles."
Sebelius had said she didn't believe it was the government's role to dictate health care. But Kyl's comments underscored GOP concerns as Congress gets to work on the Obama administration's plans to overhaul the nation's $2.4 trillion health care system. Some Republicans fear a shift toward government-run health care.
The two Republicans who voted "yes" on Sebelius were Sen. Pat Roberts from her home state of Kansas, and moderate Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine.