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Oval Office Visit Hints at Daschle's Role
President Consulting Man He Once Wanted as Czar on the Issue

By Philip Rucker and Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, August 22, 2009

Former Senate majority leader Thomas A. Daschle's visit to the Oval Office on Friday, at the invitation of President Obama, was more than just a meeting between two loyal friends and political allies. It also served as a reminder of what might have been.

As Obama's health-care agenda teeters in Congress, the White House listed the private meeting on the president's public schedule, sending a signal that Obama is still consulting Daschle on his top domestic policy priority. An assiduous student of health policy and an adept creature of the Senate, Daschle was Obama's first pick to oversee his reforms, but a firestorm over Daschle's failure to pay about $146,000 in taxes on time prompted the South Dakota Democrat in February to withdraw his nomination to be secretary of health and human services.

Since returning to the private sector, Daschle has served a dual role on health care. He has informally advised high-ranking administration officials, including senior aide Pete Rouse and health-care reform czar Nancy-Ann DeParle, who took over half of the job Obama created for Daschle. On television shows, in speeches and at symposiums, he has been a vocal advocate for a universal coverage plan that includes the public insurance option.

But Daschle is also working closely with lobbyists, through his job at the Alston and Bird law firm, as an adviser to United Health Group, one of the nation's largest insurance companies. The insurance industry opposes the public option.

White House aides said that Daschle's corporate work does not present a conflict of interest and that Obama counts the former Senate leader as a confidant. "The president knows and expects that, when he asks Senator Daschle a question, that he's getting the opinion of Senator Daschle and not anybody else," press secretary Robert Gibbs said.

Friday's meeting -- which the White House said focused largely on health care -- also prompted conjecture about whether Obama's reform agenda might have achieved a different fate thus far under Daschle's stewardship.

"No one in these jobs is truly unique, but he was about as close to it as possible, in terms of the depth of substantive knowledge and understanding of the personalities on Capitol Hill and the process on Capitol Hill," said a senior Democrat who is close to Obama and spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss a sensitive matter. "I think the loss of him from the inside is a factor in the way things have developed."

The source said he did not intend any slight on current administration officials, but he added that Daschle had "the credibility, the knowledge and the relationships that I think are, to some extent, unsurpassable, so everybody looks a little bit less strong than I think he would've been."

Inside the White House, there is a deep reservoir of support for Daschle, one of Obama's earliest backers in last year's campaign. Many of the president's advisers once worked for Daschle, including Rouse, communications director Anita Dunn, deputy communications director Dan Pfeiffer and legislative affairs director Phil Schiliro.

In a statement Friday, the White House said Daschle has been "a friend and sounding-board for the president for several years."

White House officials have gone out of their way to praise DeParle and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, the former Kansas governor whom Obama nominated after Daschle's withdrawal. But no one denies that Daschle would have played a unique role.

Daschle talks regularly about health care with his friends in Congress, including Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), and he met in May with House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) and other lawmakers.

"He's been a counselor to people both on Capitol Hill and within the administration in terms of advice about how to move the process along, how to get the deal that would most meet the goals that the president's laid out to expand coverage," said John D. Podesta, president of the Center for American Progress and former co-chairman of Obama's transition team.

Gibbs said Daschle "doesn't have a formal role at the White House, but the president certainly listens to his advice and counsel as he does to many others."

One longtime friend of the former majority leader said Daschle planned to advise Obama to "go on vacation, get off the airwaves and get your people off the airwaves" in an attempt to lower the temperature of the debate and give Senate negotiators more time to craft a mutually satisfactory deal.

"A little radio silence wouldn't hurt," said the source, who is involved in health-care lobbying and spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk candidly about strategy.

Upon his nomination, Daschle was hailed as uniquely qualified for the post, with leverage in the halls of Congress to bring about bipartisanship and the policy knowledge to shape meaningful change. Daschle, who watched the demise of President Bill Clinton's attempt to overhaul the health system in the 1990s, was determined not to have Obama repeat that experience.

Daschle wrote a book, "Critical: What We Can Do About the Health-Care Crisis," proposing an independent federal body to oversee health policy. And in June, he joined with former Senate Republicans Robert J. Dole and Howard Baker in proposing a plan for universal health-care coverage that would not put the federal government further in debt.

Daschle elicits praise even from one of his rivals, former Senate Republican leader Bill Frist, whose unusually active campaigning in 2004 helped John Thune unseat Daschle. Now the two are on friendly terms, having traveled together to Rwanda last summer on a charity mission and sharing the stage at recent health-care symposiums.

"He is the one person who has the legislative experience, who could maneuver a bipartisan bill through the Senate and all the way through Congress," said Frist, a former physician. "His experience with being leader, his understanding of the legislative process, his ability to negotiate is what President Obama needs now, and what he needed months ago when he started the process -- and he doesn't have it."

Staff writer Ceci Connolly and staff researcher Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.

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