Tax Uproar Drives Out Daschle

Obama Accepts Blame For Ex-Leader’s Flop

Posted February 3, 2009 at 6:30pm

Under siege for his failure to pay $128,000 in taxes, former Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) on Tuesday abruptly withdrew his nomination to head the Department of Health and Human Services, a shocking turn that occurred even as Democratic Senators appeared to be lining up behind their former colleague.

Just one day after President Barack Obama said he “absolutely” stood behind his nominee, Obama used the term “absolutely” to answer his own question — “Did I screw up?” — acknowledging he had insufficiently weighed the gravity of Daschle’s mistakes.

Obama Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said the White House had not pushed Daschle, who will also decline the offered role of White House health czar, to withdraw.

However, when Obama was asked directly, the president would not say. “I’m not going to go into the details of it,” he said, though he noted it was “Daschle’s decision.”

Nevertheless, Obama, who spoke in a series of interviews with network TV anchors, made it clear he thought it would not be appropriate for Daschle to continue.

“I don’t want to send a message that there are two sets of standards, one for powerful people and one for ordinary people who are paying their taxes,” he said.

Daschle enjoyed a chummy hearing before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee on Jan. 8. His confirmation appeared to be a lock until late last week when the Senate Finance Committee, which has jurisdiction over the nomination, released a report detailing Daschle’s tax woes.

With his Cabinet post in jeopardy, Daschle huddled with Finance Committee members Monday night to discuss his nomination. He emerged from the closed-door meeting appearing sheepish but with the full backing of his fellow Democrats. Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.), whose relationship with Daschle has at times been frosty, maintained the former Majority Leader was “eminently qualified” for the Cabinet post and asserted that the tax discrepancies were unintentional.

But by Tuesday, Daschle’s support from the Democratic bloc was met with opposition from Republican members.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), who sits on the Finance Committee, suggested Daschle might do Obama a favor and withdraw his nomination. Just minutes after Cornyn’s comment, Daschle did just that.

Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah) asserted after the news broke that Daschle had the votes to be confirmed. But he said Daschle had done the country — and his colleagues — a service by withdrawing.

“He could not possibly have functioned effectively with this cloud over him, and Senators who did vote for him would have met a firestorm of concern from their constituents,” Bennett said.

Other Republicans agreed — but not all. Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.) questioned whether Daschle should have responded to the outcry over his taxes by bowing out.

“I’m sorry that was his decision,” Specter said. He criticized newspapers and Members who pressured Daschle to step aside. “I don’t like pressure,” Specter said. “I like facts.”

Daschle’s successor as Senate Democratic leader, Nevada Sen. Harry Reid, issued a terse statement expressing “respect” for Daschle’s decision.

“Senator Daschle would have been extraordinarily capable of confronting our nation’s many health-related challenges and improving health care for all Americans, but I respect his decision to withdraw amid the circumstances,” Reid said.

Obama sought to deflect some of the blame from his former nominee, saying the fiasco was ultimately his fault. “I take responsibility for appointees,” Obama said. “I’m willing to take my lumps.”

Obama continued to insist that Daschle had made an “honest mistake” and that the former Majority Leader was the best person for the job.

“Nobody was better equipped to deal with both the substance of the policy of health care but also the politics,” Obama asserted.

Reports circulated that the final nail in the coffin had come after Daschle read an editorial Tuesday in the New York Times calling for him to end his quest for the health care post.

Daschle informed the president Tuesday morning by phone that he would no longer be the nominee. There was no indication that Obama sought to dissuade him.

Daschle’s withdrawal was announced soon after Obama’s choice for chief performance officer, Nancy Killefer, ended her nomination, also because of tax problems. Obama’s Commerce secretary nominee, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D), was forced to withdraw because of a scandal in his state, and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner also faced questions over his failure to pay taxes.

But Obama denied there was anything wrong with his nominee review process.

And Gibbs indicated Geithner would not be falling on his sword, even though his tax difficulties were similar to Daschle’s.

“Mr. Geithner has gone through a process,” Gibbs said. “He’s gone through Finance Committee, he’s gone through the full Senate with bipartisan support.”