By Dana Milbank
Tuesday, February 3, 2009
Tom Daschle failed to pay taxes on a quarter-million dollars of income related to the chauffeured Cadillac that ferried him about town for three years. But don't call the guy a limousine liberal.
When he visited Capitol Hill yesterday to explain his tax problems to senators, Daschle -- President Obama's choice to run the Department of Health and Human Services -- came and went in a D.C. cab. The ride waiting for him on Constitution Avenue was labeled "M. Djebbour Taxi Co."
"My failure to recognize that the use of a car was income and not a gift from a good friend was a mistake," the former Senate majority leader explained as his onetime colleagues stood behind him in a display of support. "It was completely inadvertent. But that's no excuse, and I deeply apologize to President Obama, to my colleagues and to the American people."
It's unclear whether the American people will accept the apology; they tend to look unfavorably on people who amass more than $350,000 in unreported income and improper deductions. They also might be skeptical of somebody who used his connections and influence to pile up more than $5.2 million since he left the Senate, much of it from a major Democratic donor and $220,000 of it from health-care interests that Daschle, if confirmed by senators, will begin to regulate.
But Obama, and Democratic senators, were eager to accept their friend's apology. The president, a former senator himself, pronounced himself "absolutely" behind Daschle, and members of the Senate Finance Committee, after sitting with Daschle for just 15 minutes, lined up at the microphones to absolve him.
"I don't know of a person more honorable," said Kent Conrad (D-N.D.).
"It's an innocent mistake," added John Kerry (D-Mass.).
"My breast is clear, and my support is strong," intoned Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.).
"I will vote for Senator Daschle," the committee chairman, Max Baucus (D-Mont.), read from a prepared statement.
Indeed, the senators will almost certainly confirm the former member of their club, barring the discovery of more tax problems. But in doing so, they risk leaving the impression that they operate under the Leona Helmsley rule: Only the little people pay taxes.
First there was Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, who underpaid Uncle Sam by $43,000. Then the administration dribbled out the news late Friday that Daschle owed the Treasury nearly $150,000. By the time Obama spoke at Saturday night's Alfalfa Club dinner, he was joking that even his family's plans to get a pet Labradoodle had been delayed over problems with the dog's back taxes.
This evidently did not concern the members of the Finance Committee. They confirmed Geithner last month under the rationale that the financial crisis was too urgent to await a replacement. Now they are poised to do the same for their former colleague because, well, he's just an awfully nice guy.
Daschle had another thing going for him. With his tax flap coming so soon after Geithner's, the script had already been written.
"I want to apologize to the committee for putting you in the position of having to spend so much time on these issues," Geithner said at last month's confirmation hearing.
"I apologize for the errors and profoundly regret that you have had to devote time to them" was Daschle's version of the contrition statement. To that, Daschle added his own flourish: "I am deeply embarrassed and disappointed by the errors."
Disappointed? That's a signature Daschle word: When anthrax spores were mailed to his Senate office, he pronounced himself "very, very disappointed." But disappointed in what? In the tax code? In his accountant? He didn't specify.
And he didn't need to.
At yesterday's White House briefing, ABC News's Jake Tapper asked whether Obama worried that the nearly $200,000 in back taxes and penalties owed between Geithner and Daschle will "undercut the president's cry for an era of responsibility."
"Both Secretary Geithner and Secretary-designate Daschle are the right people for very important jobs," press secretary Robert Gibbs replied.
"Is there an amount of money in unpaid back taxes for any nominee to the president's Cabinet that would be considered disqualifying?" needled Fox News's Major Garrett.
"I'm not going to get into hypotheticals," Gibbs answered.
When Daschle arrived for his closed-door meeting with the Finance Committee, his face reddened at the sight of dozens of cameras waiting for him. When he left the room, he assumed a posture of contrition, clasping his hands in front of him and bowing his head slightly as the Democratic senators announced their support.
"They were disappointing mistakes, but it is clear that they were not purposeful mistakes," Baucus said, using words similar to his absolution of Geithner.
"We support the confirmation of Senator Daschle not because he was a senator, but because of the kind of senator and kind of person that he was, and is," Kerry added.
Kerry, so absorbed in absolving Daschle, didn't realize that the nominee was standing with him at the microphones. "Is Tom coming out?" he asked Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), as Daschle stood inches away. Wyden pointed to Daschle, and Kerry wrapped his arm around his former Senate club mate.