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Sebelius And (possible) Fireworks Over Abortion Rights

So why did it take so long for Obama to decide on Kathleen Sebelius for HHS Secretary? Several factors were at play, including political considerations about taking her out of the running for the Kansas Senate seat up for election in 2010. But it's even more clear today that, as several media outlets have been reporting, the administration was weighing the pros and cons of a fight over abortion rights--and then preparing to fight it.

Admittedly, Obama was never going to appoint an HHS Secretary opposed to abortion rights. Obama himself got a perfect 100 rating from the National Abortion Rights Action League last year.  You can't get more pro-choice than that. And Sebelius, who is Catholic, has actually declared that she's personally opposed to abortion.

But whatever her personal sentiments, Sebelius as governor has been pretty unwavering of her support of abortion rights. And, unlike Obama or the rest of the administration, she has taken and defended that position in Kansas--putting her in direct conflict with some of the country's staunchest social conservatives. Among other things, she twice vetoed restrictions on late-term abortions, although she argued (quite plausibly) they would not have passed muster with the courts.

Those fights have left some deep scars. An analyst at Witchita's Operation Rescue has called Sebelius "the most pro-abortion governor in the country." And now the right is preparing to do battle, as this dispatch from Christian Broadcasting Network correspondent David Brody makes clear.

(For a liberal take on Sebelius' battles with right-wingers in Kansas, here is Jane Hamsher.) 

Obama's allies are ready for the fight, too. Just hours after word of her appointment got out in a well-orchestrated White House leak, liberal groups were circulating pro-Sebelius dossiers every bit as thick as the conservative dossiers attacking her.

Of course, i's not clear that the fight will actually take place. Given Democratic numbers in the Senate and all the other items on the political agenda, the Sebelius appointment could sail through with relative ease. But if it does become a fight, I'm honestly not sure how the politics of it will shake out.

It's possible voters, who generally favor of abortion rights, will see the controversy as a distraction from more pressing business and hold the right responsible for, once again, dithering in the face of a national economic crisis. Or it's possible that voters, who tend to oppose late-term abortions, will decide Obama is to blame, for putting forward a nominee that's out of step with their values or simply too polarizing.

My money is on the former, paticularly subce Sebelius strikes me as one of the least polarizing political figures I've ever seen. But as somebody who rather likes Sebelius as the choice for HHS and supports abortion rights strongly, I realize I'm not excactly objective.

Update: As Ben Smith notes, Sebelius has won the endorsement of both Republican Senators in Kansas. That should help defuse some crticism. 

--Jonathan Cohn