Daschle Confirmation Hinges on Ties in Senate

By Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 1, 2009

As he ducked into the Capitol late Monday evening, Thomas A. Daschle ran into one of his closest friends, Sen. Tom Harkin (D), the populist from Iowa who had just voted against Timothy F. Geithner's confirmation as Treasury secretary because he could not forgive his failure to pay taxes he owed.

Daschle and Harkin embraced and then huddled together for several minutes as Harkin asked about the health of the former Senate leader's ailing brother.

Now, as Daschle tries to win confirmation as health and human services secretary, he must tap such personal relationships, which he cultivated over 18 years representing South Dakota in the Senate, even as Harkin and his colleagues face the same question on Daschle that confronted them with Geithner: Should tax problems derail the nomination?

Daschle owed more than $128,000 for unreported income from a private equity firm over a three-year period, Senate documents revealed Friday. He paid the tax bill, and $12,000 more in interest, just six days before his first Senate confirmation hearing last month.

Harkin has not spoken about Daschle's tax controversy, but yesterday other friends of the nominee began a campaign to defend him.

A group of Senate Democrats issued a series of statements praising Daschle, citing his expertise in health care as indispensable at a time when more than 45 million Americans are uninsured.

David Axelrod, President Obama's senior adviser, led a conference call yesterday to coordinate the message of Democrats appearing on today's news talk shows -- a message that focused in part on defending Daschle. According to participants, the senators on the call agreed on a central theme: "Go fight for him."

Early reactions from the Senate have shown little need for much of a fight. No Senate Republican has stepped forward to criticize Daschle for what he said was an honest accounting mistake, while Democrats yesterday credited him for discovering the tax errors himself and taking the steps to correct them.

Senators also cited their personal knowledge of Daschle in justifying their willingness to dismiss the tax issue.

"I've known Tom Daschle for years, and he is a man of great character and integrity who will do a superb job in helping us fix our healthcare system," Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) said in a statement. Kerry is a member of the Finance Committee, which will vote on Daschle's nomination.

Daschle's confirmation, once considered the easiest among President Obama's Cabinet nominations, rests to some degree in his ability to rely on his old friends within an institution renowned for its clubby atmosphere. In the history of Cabinet confirmations, the Senate has voted down only one current or former colleague, John Tower (R-Tex.), and that came after the former senator was accused of excessive drinking and extramarital affairs during his 1989 confirmation hearings to be defense secretary.

Once Daschle left the Senate, after his 2004 defeat to Republican John Thune, he remained prominent in senatorial circles.

Senate Democrats named the headquarters of their campaign committee after him, and in March 2005, on the day that he signed a $1 million-a-year contract to join InterMedia Advisers, a private equity firm, almost every Senate Democrat turned out to a 400-person party at the National Building Museum in Daschle's honor.

"I got in the car to come over here tonight," Daschle said at the party, "and then a few minutes later, Linda got in the car. We sat there a couple of minutes. Then Linda said, 'If this car is going to get us there, you better get in the driver's seat.' "

Daschle has become a major financial backer of Democratic campaigns. Last year he wrote more than $40,000 worth of personal checks to benefit Senate candidates. He and his wife, Linda Hall Daschle, donated over the past two years to at least 14 senators who will be tasked with voting on his confirmation.

On Jan. 6 -- four days after he paid the back taxes -- Daschle was on the Senate floor for swearing-in day. He even buried a political hatchet by making his first public appearance with Thune since the 2004 campaign, as both men escorted Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) down the aisle to be sworn in for his third term.

And on Monday, when Daschle walked into the Capitol, he was treated like a returning hero. As he headed to a meeting with Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.), Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) pulled him aside for a private conversation lasting several minutes. A line of senators -- having just voted on Geithner's nomination -- were leaving the building but stopped to greet Daschle, including Harkin, Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine) and Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.).

Few, if any, knew what Daschle had just endured that afternoon: a 2 1/2 -hour grilling by bipartisan Senate Finance Committee staff members investigating his tax issues.

Sources said Daschle was "cool as a cucumber" during the interview. With his accountant on speakerphone from South Dakota, Daschle explained how he realized that his use of a car and driver provided by the private equity firm he works for might be construed as a financial benefit.

As Daschle was being interviewed by the staff, 34 senators opposed Geithner's nomination, including Harkin and three other Democrats -- the largest number of votes against any of Obama's nominees thus far.

Like most of those voting no, Harkin issued a statement that said he could not look past Geithner's "serious errors of judgment in failing to pay his taxes."

Staff writer Joe Stephens contributed to this report.

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