NASHVILLE - Gov. Phil Bredesen said he is interested in becoming U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary, but only if he can can lead the way to reforming America's health care system.
"If it were a case of really being able to help in some fundamental way, something I really believe in which is to create universal health care, I certainly would think about it and talk about it," Gov. Bredesen said.
The governor said that "if it's a matter of administering a big, huge bureaucracy, I've already got that job."
Asked what he would do if President Barack Obama offered him the job, the governor said, "I'll cross that bridge if I come to it."
The comments came as speculation increases that Gov. Bredesen, an entrepreneur who made millions in managed health care, is under serious consideration by the Obama administration after former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle's nomination crashed earlier this week.
An Associated Press article reported Friday that Gov. Bredesen and Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius "appear to lead the pack."
Mark Halperin of Time magazine declared in one blog posting Friday that "Tennessee Governor Bredesen in line to run HHS after talks with White House officials."
A Bredesen spokeswoman flatly denied on Friday that Gov. Bredesen has been involved in any discussions with the White House. The governor himself on Thursday night told members of the Tennessee Press Association that he had been engaged in no "official" discussions.
But if the Obama administration is seriously considering Gov. Bredesen, officials face major problems in the form of liberal health care advocates. They harbor deep anger over Gov. Bredesen's 2005 cuts to TennCare, the state's version of Medicaid, which resulted in 170,000 people being bounced from the program.
On Friday, Tony Garr, executive director of the Tennessee HealthCare Campaign, urged supporters by e-mail to contact Obama Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and tell him they oppose Gov. Bredesen.
"He presided over massive cuts to Tennessee's Medicaid program and, by all appearances, relished fighting with advocates for the poor more than the advocates of the cuts," Mr. Garr said. "He made his fortune in the for-profit health insurance industry, raising questions about the sensibility he'd bring."
Gov. Bredesen has maintained that TennCare had to be cut because it was financially unsustainable. He has sought to blame advocates for how cuts occurred, arguing they unreasonably opposed changes to previous court orders.
Ron Pollack, executive director of the Washington-based advocacy group FamiliesUSA, warned the governor's nomination for HHS secretary would "create a firestorm among the very people the president would rely on to achieve health care reform."
He also voiced doubts about Gov. Bredesen's sincerity in pushing toward universal health care, noting that "no governor in the history of the nation has presided over such a huge cutback that resulted in death and people's health being harmed and enormous economic hardship."
Gov. Bredesen said advocates were "being unrealistic about what my choices were in the circumstances, but that's their privilege. I certainly expect that criticism."
But he said that "whatever happens in the end, I don't think it (their criticisms) will be terribly meaningful. I think there's also lots of other groups, professional health care groups and the like, who are very admiring of what we did with TennCare. And I think ultimately, if it were to be an issue their views would carry more weight."
As for his name being under discussion, Gov. Bredesen said, "I know there's been a lot of telephone traffic and people who are friends of mine calling people they know. ... I've had no official contact."