By Ceci Connolly
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 4, 2009
Long before the Senate had a chance to consider his nomination to be secretary of health and human services, Thomas A. Daschle was hard at work pressing President Obama's signature domestic policy goal of revamping the U.S. health system.
In private sessions in Washington and town hall-style meetings beyond the Beltway, the former Senate majority leader was assembling a team of experts, cajoling special interests and mobilizing grass-roots support for an ambitious overhaul.
Yesterday, Daschle withdrew his name after acknowledging he paid $146,000 in back taxes and interest. Now Obama must forge ahead without his close friend and Washington mentor, a setback that health experts across the political spectrum described yesterday as serious but not insurmountable.
"I think Tom Daschle would have been the best person to help shepherd through a health-care bill through a very difficult process in Congress," Obama said on ABC News. "I regret the fact that he's not going to be serving, but we're going to move forward."
The embarrassing departure of any Cabinet choice complicates the work of the White House. But the announcement yesterday that Daschle was withdrawing his nomination and also resigning from the health czar job created especially for him was a particularly damaging blow to the new administration.
When Obama named him in mid-December, Daschle seemed the "ideal choice," in the words of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.). "Exceptionally well-qualified to bring people together," insurers proclaimed. Official Washington said Obama had demonstrated that he possessed the commitment and smarts to tap a savvy insider to achieve something the Clintons could not.
"Senator Daschle had two things going for him that were very formidable characteristics," said Robert E. Moffit, director of the Center for Health Policy Studies at the conservative Heritage Foundation. "He was a leader in the U.S. Senate, a member of the club, and he was probably one of the most knowledgeable people in health policy. For the Obama administration, that was a powerful tactical weapon."
Democrats close to the White House said that they are now at a loss for who will fill the void, given that Daschle was the only real contender contemplated by the president.
"There were no other names," said one administration ally who was not permitted to speak on the record about the Daschle saga.
"The game plan changes when you need to swap out your quarterback," said Dan Mendelson, a former Clinton administration official who now owns a health consulting company. "Congress writes the laws. The Obama administration really understands that."
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) emphasized yesterday that his staff will resume its work crafting health legislation.
Even so, many Democrats and health aides were shell-shocked.
"This was no ordinary appointment, and today is not a good day for the cause of health care reform," read a statement issued by Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.). "Tom brought a unique level of legislative skill and experience to this position, in addition to his passion to achieve affordable health care for every American."
As complex as the U.S. health system is -- at a cost of $2 trillion last year -- the policy options for improvement are well-known, said Georges C. Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association.
"To get health reform in this country is a political exercise," Benjamin said. Daschle "knew the players, knew the mistakes we've made over the years, and he had the credibility to cut the deals."
Despite the setback, proponents of health-care reform said the public's desire for change, and Obama's campaign promises to deliver that, still bode well for action this year.
"There's widespread consensus about the fact it needs to be done," said Karen Ignagni, president and chief executive of America's Health Insurance Plans.
For every one percentage point that unemployment rises, an additional 1.1 million people lose health insurance, said Karen Davis, president of the Commonwealth Fund, a private health research foundation. That means that health care, always a top concern of American voters, has risen on the agenda, she said.
Drew E. Altman, president and chief executive of the nonprofit Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, said that economic fears, Democratic control of both the White House and Congress, and the desire in the corporate world to rein in health costs are powerful forces in favor of reform.
But the recession could also sap the time or political energy to tackle it right now, Altman said. And if action is postponed until 2010, when members of Congress will be focused on their own re-election campaigns, the prospects will dim, he added.
"The question hanging in the balance is whether the president and Congress are able to move forward while the window of opportunity is open," he said.
Leading advocates of reform pledged yesterday to keep up the pressure.
"The American people are counting on us to deliver a workable health-care solution at long last," said Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.) "It is a moral imperative, and we must move forward."
Staff writer Paul Kane contributed to this report.