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Republicans consider whether to block Whitmer’s health chief

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Michigan Office of the Governor via AP
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Republican senators critical of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic are weighing whether to reject her appointee to run the state health department, which has issued orders restricting business capacity and gathering sizes to limit COVID-19?s spread.

Elizabeth Hertel took over the Department of Health and Human Services on Jan. 22, the day Robert Gordon abruptly resigned. Her appointment will stand unless the GOP-controlled Senate blocks it by March 23. No affirmative vote is required.

Hertel’s nomination is drawing considerably more attention than any in years. She has spent hours answering questions in two Advice and Consent Committee hearings and is expected back for a third meeting this week.

“We need to decide if the Whitmer-Hertel era at DHHS will be any different than the Whitmer-Gordon era,” said Sen. Aric Nesbitt, a Lawton Republican who chairs the panel. “After two hearings, that is a legitimate concern that I have. There is a failure to recognize or acknowledge mistakes, and there are no clear explanations of the science and data behind these unilateral, seemingly endless and ever-changing orders.”

About a third of the 20-member GOP caucus has publicly opposed Hertel, voicing long-running frustrations with the pandemic restrictions and concerns that Hertel represents more of the same. But Republicans would need to be in near lockstep — which appears unlikely — because Democrats support her.

Hertel, 42, has cachet with several GOP senators from her past jobs in the Legislature, both with the House Republican Policy Office and former Rep. Bruce Caswell, a Republican. Before being elevated to DHHS director, she had been a chief deputy director under Gordon for two years and, from 2013 to 2016, held top positions in the department during Republican Gov. Rick Snyder’s administration. She is married to Democratic Sen. Curtis Hertel Jr.

An array of hospital, insurance and other health groups are backing her nomination. So is the Michigan Restaurant & Lodging Association, even though it contends that the Whitmer administration has overstepped with stricter rules than in surrounding states.