By Ceci Connolly
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 9, 2009
In a session that resembled a homecoming more than a congressional grilling, former senator Thomas A. Daschle yesterday glided through the first of two Senate confirmation hearings to be secretary of health and human services.
Daschle, who served 20 years in Congress, was deferential in his two-hour appearance, assuring lawmakers that he and his new boss will not forget their former colleagues as they craft sweeping health-care legislation.
"President-elect Obama recognizes that many of you have been working for many years on these issues and that any effort at reform will require very close cooperation with Congress," he told members of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.
The 61-year-old South Dakota Democrat has also been tapped to lead a new White House Office of Health Reform, a position that comes with a West Wing office and a voice in virtually all of the administration's major domestic policy debates.
"If confirmed, I will use these dual roles to marshal the talent and energy necessary to at last succeed in making health care affordable and accessible for all Americans," he said.
Recalling President Bill Clinton's failed attempt to revamp the U.S. health system, Daschle said: "Perhaps this time we can get it right."
Committee Chairman Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), who is being treated for a brain tumor, took the opportunity to remind Daschle and senators that he intends to push for rapid action on health coverage for every American. "Reform is urgently needed, and Tom Daschle is just the person for the job," he said.
Though Daschle will control nearly one-quarter of all federal spending as HHS secretary, he encountered few probing questions on his plans for programs such as Medicare, Medicaid and the State Children's Health Insurance Program, which is set to expire at the end of March. House leaders said they hope to vote next week on renewal of the program.
Absent, too, was any mention of the lobbying work by Daschle's wife or how the former senator has earned a living since his defeat in 2004. Prior to the hearing, the Republican National Committee distributed articles suggesting that Daschle's role as a senior adviser at a Washington law firm conflicted with Obama's pledge to "free the executive branch from special interest influence." Linda Daschle is a longtime registered lobbyist, focusing primarily on transportation issues.
Nor did lawmakers delve into the substantive policy differences that exist between Obama and many on Capitol Hill on such issues as the tax treatment of health insurance, the question of an individual mandate requiring all Americans to have coverage, and whether the federal government should create an optional public insurance plan.
In his prepared text, Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) objected to a new public program. But in the hearing, he told Daschle: "I know that we have a shared commitment to reducing the number of uninsured Americans, containing costs, improving quality and making health care more accessible to everyone."
For his part, Daschle promised to improve morale at the Food and Drug Administration and ensure that its decisions are "guided by evidence and effectiveness, not by ideology."
He also spoke passionately about a "paradigm shift" from treating illness to promoting good health, largely through better prevention and primary care. As he put it: "We've got to make prevention hot and wellness cool."