Driving Mr. Daschle Out?

Former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle has withdrawn his nomination for secretary of health and human services amid a tax problem. Video by AP
By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 3, 2009; 10:00 AM

Can Tom Daschle make it into the end zone with both feet inbounds?

Conservatives are on the offense after the belated disclosure that the former Senate minority leader had to repay $140,000 in back taxes for a car and driver provided by a corporate benefactor. But liberals aren't mounting much of a defense for the embattled HHS nominee, and one editor on the left has called for him to bow out.

In Daschle's favor, of course, is the clubby nature of a Senate that is going to be reluctant to reject one of its longtime members, especially after his apology yesterday.

As a lawmaker, Tom Daschle always struck me as a modest South Dakotan who was more interested in behind-the-scenes compromise than lining his pockets. I happened to see him at a Whole Foods a few weeks ago, shopping by himself, and that fit the image. Little did I know his car and driver might be waiting outside.

But after losing a reelection bid, Daschle decided to cash in, like so many Washington insiders before him. There was the at least $3 million a year from the companies that were paying him, the fat speaking fees from corporations, and the former telecommunications executive and Democratic donor, Leo Hindery, who provided the chauffeur services. But at 3 mil a year, why couldn't Daschle have paid for his own car and driver? And how much savvy does it take to figure out that such 'free' services would be considered taxable income?

Daschle wasn't technically a lobbyist, but does anyone really doubt why big law firms and companies were throwing money at him?

The media, which some expected to roll over for Obama, are not giving Daschle an easy time. His tax fiasco -- including his failure to reveal it to the Obama vetters until after the fact -- was the lead story in Sunday's Washington Post and also on the front page of the New York Times, and the Times had another front-pager yesterday detailing how a former senator in four years could "live a lavish lifestyle by dint of his name, connections and knowledge of the town's inner workings." Plus, the paper's editorial page says today that Daschle should pull out.

It doesn't help that Daschle's tax problem follows Tim Geithner's tax problem. And that presents the new president, who has talked up the need for an ethical administration free from special interests, with a dilemma. Obama, for his part, fielded a Daschle question yesterday with a one-word answer. Talk about staying on message.

"Congressional Democrats moved Monday to shore up Tom Daschle's nomination to become President Obama's secretary of Health and Human Services as the former senator apologized publicly for not paying more than $128,000 in income taxes," the L.A. Times reports.

" 'The American people have high expectations for those of us who serve the public good. That's especially true when it comes to taxes. They pay their fair share and they expect all of us to do the same,' Daschle told reporters after meeting with the Senate Finance Committee to answer questions."

"During almost two years on the campaign trail," says the NYT, "Barack Obama vowed to slay the demons of Washington, bar lobbyists from his administration and usher in what he would later call in his Inaugural Address a 'new era of responsibility.' What he did not talk much about were the asterisks.

"The exceptions that went unmentioned now include a pair of cabinet nominees who did not pay all of their taxes. Then there is the lobbyist for a military contractor who is now slated to become the No. 2 official in the Pentagon. And there are the others brought into government from the influence industry even if not formally registered as lobbyists . . .

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