The Nomination That's Too Big to Fail

Even Republicans are shrugging at the tax and housekeeper problems of Treasury Secretary-designate Timothy Geithner.
Even Republicans are shrugging at the tax and housekeeper problems of Treasury Secretary-designate Timothy Geithner. (By Chip Somodevilla -- Getty Images)
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By Dana Milbank
Thursday, January 15, 2009

The senators were in a state of low dudgeon.

They had just learned that Treasury Secretary-designate Timothy Geithner hadn't paid all his taxes, and, truth be told, nobody really cared.

"The man is qualified, competent, one of the best choices the president has made," one member of the tax-writing Finance Committee said yesterday.

"I think he's a good man," another one said with a shrug.

"I don't believe there's any doubt about his qualifications," said a third.

And those were the Republicans.

In the scandal-obsessed capital, the latest public peccadillo has been met by uncharacteristic indifference. Geithner, the man who would oversee the IRS, paid the government $42,702 because of mistakes he had made on his tax returns, and he disclosed to lawmakers that he briefly had a housekeeper without proper immigration papers. It's the sort of embarrassment that usually fires up the opposition -- but this time, as one senior GOP official put it, "CNN is talking about it more than we are."

Nobody called a news conference to rail about the nominee. Nobody mentioned it on the floor. Even Sen. David Vitter, a Louisiana Republican who rarely meets a Democratic appointment he likes, was shy. "I don't know enough about the details of that to comment on that," he begged off when asked about Geithner at an unrelated news conference.

There seems to be no chance that Geithner will suffer the nannygate fate of Zoe Baird, Kimba Wood or Linda Chavez; Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont) said his confirmation is "a given." Part of that is because Geithner's transgressions are relatively minor. But mostly, senators have decided that times are too dire to be puritanical. The economy is in too much trouble to wait for another Treasury secretary to be nominated -- and Republicans know they aren't likely to get another appointment as good as Geithner, who worked closely with the Bush administration while running the New York Fed.

Put another way, the guy is too big to fail.

Still, the cease-fire over Geithner was eerie. When Senate Democrats learned eight years ago that Chavez, Bush's choice to be labor secretary, had sheltered an illegal immigrant, they reacted with phrases such as "cloud over her nomination" and "very disturbing" and "extremely troubling."

"It doesn't sound good for a labor secretary," Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) said at the time.

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