By Ceci Connolly
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 20, 2008
Thomas A. Daschle, a former Senate majority leader and a confidant of President-elect Barack Obama, will be nominated as secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services and will take on a broader role as the administration's health policy chief, said several sources close to the transition process.
The early selection of Daschle, who until recently was not known as an expert on health policy, is recognition of the central role he played in Obama's political ascendancy and a signal that the incoming president wants an experienced Washington insider to shepherd comprehensive health legislation through Congress.
"Having Senator Daschle at HHS and as the point person for the Obama administration on health care would only improve the chances of" enacting health reform, said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.), who is pushing for such legislation.
If confirmed by the Senate, Daschle will take over a $707.7 billion department with nearly 65,000 employees spread across 11 operating divisions. As HHS secretary, he would be under pressure to revitalize the Food and Drug Administration, bring financial stability to the Medicare and Medicaid programs, and move away from what many researchers have complained is the ideologically driven scientific agenda of the Bush administration.
For Daschle, 60, the more intriguing challenge may come in his yet-to-be-named role as the White House's highest-ranking health policy adviser.
"Being a Cabinet secretary is a car and driver and you get to go to the head of the line at the airport, unless you're Defense or State," said one Daschle associate who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations. "This was key for Tom to have that White House connection."
When President Bill Clinton attempted a widespread overhaul of the U.S. health system in 1993, he turned to his wife -- not the HHS secretary -- to lead the effort. Daschle, who watched the death of the Clinton bill up close, did not want a repeat of that experience.
"Tom Daschle sees this as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," said Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.). "On the premier domestic issue of our time, the president-elect sees Tom Daschle with the skills and abilities to bring people together and get this over the finish line."
A native of South Dakota who was an Air Force intelligence officer, Daschle served four terms in the House and three in the Senate. He is a soft-spoken conciliator, but also a fierce competitor who surprised many when he defeated Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (Conn.) in the 1994 race for Senate Democratic leader, a job he held for a decade. From a policy perspective, he was best known for his work on veterans' affairs, ethanol subsidies and rural issues.
The nomination by Obama represents a political comeback for Daschle, who four years ago was reeling from a bitter reelection defeat.
While he weighed his own future, Daschle handed over to Obama dozens of his most trusted aides and political supporters, a gift that continues to pay dividends. Obama has already placed Daschle allies Pete Rouse and Phil Schiliro in top White House positions and named former Daschle adviser John D. Podesta as co-chairman of the transition team.
Daschle serves as a distinguished senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank formed by Podesta.
Republicans made clear yesterday that Daschle can expect questions at his confirmation hearing about lobbying by his law firm, as well as his wife Linda's work in Washington.
"Barack Obama is filling his administration with longtime Washington insiders," said Alex Conant, spokesman for the Republican National Committee. "For voters hoping to see new faces and fewer lobbyist connections in government, Daschle's nomination will be another disappointment."
Daschle is not a lobbyist, although his firm, Alston & Bird, does have a lobbying arm. He serves on the advisory boards of Intermedia Partners and the BP America external advisory council.
Linda Hall Daschle is a registered federal lobbyist with Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz, which has many health-care clients. To avoid a potential conflict, she announced yesterday that she will resign and set up her own lobbying shop focused on transportation.
In recent years, Thomas Daschle has become an assiduous student of the U.S. health system, serving on the Board of Trustees of the Mayo Clinic and co-writing the book "Critical: What We Can Do About the Health-Care Crisis." In it, he advocates creating an independent body, modeled after the Federal Reserve Board, to oversee health policy. That idea, and the book, received a hearty endorsement from then-Sen. Obama.
"The American health-care system is in crisis, and workable solutions have been blocked for years by deeply entrenched ideological divisions," Obama wrote at the time. "Sen. Daschle brings fresh thinking to this problem, and his Federal Reserve for Health concept holds great promise for bridging this intellectual chasm and, at long last, giving this nation the health care it deserves."
After Obama's election, rumors swirled that Daschle was a candidate for the job of White House chief of staff, a position that went to Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.). But Daschle's friend Fred Graefe said the health job is a better fit, especially given Obama's interest in the issue.
Being given a portfolio broader than the Cabinet post "is the most important piece of this," said Graefe, a lawyer and lobbyist. "The development and execution of health-care policy is now going to be on the same par as national security policy."
Staff writer Chris Cillizza contributed to this report.