Daschle's Woes Test An Insider's Insider

Katie Couric speaks with President Obama, who admits that he "messed up" in his selection of Tom Daschle for Health and Human Services secretary.
By Ceci Connolly
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 3, 2009

As he battles this week to save his nomination to be secretary of health and human services, one thing is certain: No one in Washington has a better-positioned network of allies in the Obama administration than Thomas A. Daschle.

Over three decades on Capitol Hill, including 10 years as the Senate Democratic leader, Daschle has nurtured one of the largest, most experienced talent pools in the city. His charges guided Barack Obama from his first days in the Senate, through the presidential race and into the White House. Daschle's tentacles, moreover, stretch far beyond the agency Obama picked him to lead, reaching across the entire administration from the upper echelons of the White House to mid-level departmental positions to Obama's kitchen cabinet.

The network is being tapped this week as Daschle and his allies scramble to explain why he did not pay more than $100,000 in back taxes, primarily for the use of a car and driver for three years. After a 75-minute closed-door meeting yesterday with the Senate Finance Committee, he emerged ashen-faced and apologetic. His confirmation vote has been postponed until at least the middle of next week.

Republicans remained noncommittal yesterday, weighing the costs and benefits of perhaps killing the nomination of a former colleague and close personal friend of the president. Democrats rose to Daschle's defense, including, most notably, the man who would be without much of his top staff were it not for Daschle.

Asked yesterday morning whether he stands by Daschle, Obama said firmly: "Absolutely."

If he weathers the tax controversy, Daschle is likely to be one of the best-connected Cabinet secretaries in the administration, if not history.

At least a dozen Daschle alumni are stepping into the highest positions of the federal government. Already, Obama and Vice President Biden have tapped Daschle veterans to manage their staffs, guide foreign policy and craft public relations strategy. In addition to the new HHS chief of staff, the chiefs of staff to Biden, the National Security Council and Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner all worked for Daschle. His allies oversaw Obama's transition team -- including vetting Daschle himself -- and one serves as the president's personal lawyer.

"This is notable for the breadth and scope and number," said Chris Jennings, who was the Clinton administration point man on health care and knows the challenges of navigating the White House bureaucracy.

As news broke over the weekend that Daschle had made several tax errors, many of those former colleagues and aides helped mount a defense, praising his integrity on talk shows, in news releases and in whispered asides. Not a single lawmaker has called for him to withdraw.

But the real potency of the network will come if Daschle is confirmed, said Ross K. Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University. With such well-placed, trusted advisers, he would be in a position to promote his priorities and shape policy well beyond the contours of his department.

"The fact that he has eyes and ears in the White House, rather than way down in the HHS bureaucracy, is really an advantage," Baker said. He likened Daschle's sphere of influence to the broad power that Henry Kissinger held as secretary of state in the Nixon administration.

"Geography is determinant of influence," he said. "To have people proximate to the president is a real advantage."

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