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The Nomination That's Too Big to Fail

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.

Of course, it doesn't sound good for a Treasury secretary to make errors on his income taxes. But Democrats were untroubled. "I think this is an honest mistake," Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) -- who once had "serious questions" about Chavez -- told NBC's "Today" show.

"He was very contrite about it, and he said he had fully rectified those mistakes immediately," Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) told reporters.

A partisan defense of a Democratic administration's nominee? That doesn't explain Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.). "Talented people like Tim Geithner are needed right now," he told Fox News. And it doesn't explain Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), who told the Post's Shailagh Murray: "I'm not one who holds mistakes against people."

Sen. Chuck Grassley (Iowa), the top Republican on the Finance Committee, said he hasn't "any doubt" about Geithner's qualifications and praised him as "a relative political independent." Grassley, in a conference call yesterday, said that in the committee's meeting with Geithner, "I didn't hear anybody say that they weren't going to vote for him based on this."

Could it be that Barack Obama has already brought a new, post-partisan era to Washington? (It almost seemed that way when Larry Summers, Obama's chief economic adviser, showed up in the Capitol to brief Republican senators yesterday; he cast aside not just partisanship but also sartorial dignity: As Summers walked into the Mansfield Room off the Senate floor, his untucked shirttail was hanging out from under his suit jacket.)

But it's not all harmony just yet. Two GOP senators have postponed Geithner's confirmation hearing, which had been scheduled for Friday. And a few of the backbench Republicans are reacting in the traditional way. "The man who wants to be the top tax collector in America," Sen. Jeff Sessions (Ala.) told reporters, "not having paid $35,000 in taxes, apparently maybe even involving an illegal alien, is a serious matter."

At Sessions's side, Sen. Jim DeMint (S.C.) accused Geithner of "ignoring the rule of law . . . not as an oversight but apparently intentionally."

But on this too-big-to-fail nomination, DeMint and Sessions are in a lonely minority of the unforgiving.

"He may have exceeded the speed limit, but he wasn't weaving out of lanes, he wasn't drunk and he wasn't endangering anybody," Sen. Robert Bennett (R-Utah) told The Post's Lori Montgomery. And Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), who also expects to support Geithner, even offered some helpful advice to future appointees who have also run afoul of the tax code: "Don't wait until after you're nominated to pay."

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