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Obama Says He Erred in Nominations

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Katie Couric speaks with President Obama, who admits that he "messed up" in his selection of Tom Daschle for Health and Human Services secretary.

Daschle informed Obama of his decision in a phone call yesterday morning, White House officials said.

Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (Maine), a key Republican on the finance panel, said she went home Monday night expecting the confirmation process to go forward and Daschle to be sworn in as the new health secretary. "I thought the process was underway," she said. "All indications were that this was going forward."

Gregory B. Craig, the White House counsel, declined to say whether the latest upheaval would prompt the White House to revisit its rules relating to senior officials coming from the private sector into the administration. Although Daschle was not a registered lobbyist, he represented health-care clients for his law firm and he received more than $250,000 in income from paid speeches and advice given to corporations in the health-care sector.

Before Daschle's decision was announced, a growing number of Senate Republicans began speaking out against his nomination. After holding back criticism for almost four days, some Republicans broke their silence after learning that Killefer was withdrawing her nomination because of what appeared to be a much smaller tax dispute.

"He didn't really have a choice," Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) said, after calling for Daschle to step aside earlier in the day.

Cornyn, chairman of the GOP campaign committee, said the controversy had become "Geithner on steroids," referring to the $43,000 in back taxes new Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner paid before his confirmation vote.

The situation also raised questions about how thoroughly Obama transition officials had vetted their Cabinet nominees.

Officials said yesterday that myriad tax questions had been posed to Daschle, Killefer and Geithner. But the problems were largely dismissed as less important than the nominees' qualifications for the major tasks they were expected to confront in office, the officials said.

One person familiar with the appointment process said Obama and his top advisers were concerned about the possibility of political "combustion" occurring over the tax issues. "People were not unaware that might happen," the official said. But they believed that Geithner and Daschle were uniquely qualified.

"We knew he'd get punched around on this, and that he had made a painful mistake," John D. Podesta, who co-chaired Obama's transition team, said of Daschle. "But we believed he could be confirmed and that he was -- and I still believe this -- the right guy for the job of leading the department and finally getting health-care reform across the finish line."

As Obama assembled his administration, he conducted the vetting process methodically and required unprecedented scrutiny of candidates' personal, financial and professional backgrounds.

Potential picks had to answer 63-item questionnaires, which an army of lawyers, many of them volunteers, then scoured. Nine of the questions were about taxes. No. 37 asked whether "a tax lien or other collection procedure" had ever been instituted against the nominee, and No. 39 asked: "Do you have any expectation that you will be the subject of any tax, financial or other audit or inquiry?"


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