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Picks for Key Government Posts Play Long Waiting Game

The vetting process for federal appointees has intensified dramatically since problems emerged with several of President Obama's early nominees.

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Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, March 4, 2009; Page A01

An intensified vetting process has left dozens of President Obama's picks to run the government mired in a seemingly endless confirmation limbo, frustrated and cut off from the departments they are waiting to serve and unable to perform their new duties.

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In the month since $146,000 in unpaid taxes and penalties forced former senator Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) to withdraw as the nominee to become secretary of health and human services, other appointees say an army of investigators from the White House, the FBI and the Senate has descended on them, demanding years-old receipts from business trips, examining minor charitable contributions, digging through 20 years of their associations, and leading them to hire accountants to field a web of complex tax questions.

On Monday, a Senate committee revealed the results of an investigation of former Dallas mayor and Obama friend Ron Kirk, whose nomination to be the U.S. trade representative has been stalled since it was announced in mid-December. After combing through his finances for weeks, investigators discovered relatively minor tax mistakes involving basketball tickets, speech honoraria and a $1,500 television he donated to charity.

In recent days, two more of Obama's choices withdrew abruptly. Susan F. Tierney, who had been the leading candidate for the Energy Department's No. 2 official, said she was no longer interested. And Jane Garvey, a former Federal Aviation Administration chief who had been rumored to be the top choice for deputy transportation secretary, also said she was no longer a candidate.

Some nominees have been allowed to work in related jobs at the departments as they await confirmation. They are not permitted to speak publicly on behalf of the administration and are required to avoid using the offices they hope to get. Others are simply told to wait at home until their nominations clear the Senate.

"You begin to feel removed from the action. You begin to feel removed from the government you were expecting to be part of," said one nominee, who, like others, was ordered by the White House not to talk to reporters. "I bet people are swallowing a bottle of Maalox to get through this. I'm just very restless."

Across the government, important posts remain unfilled, leaving those who have already been confirmed to struggle as they attempt to meet the demands of a far-reaching presidential agenda without the staff the agencies normally have.

The White House defended its progress. "We are on target to put together a team of the best and brightest in all areas of government, and less than six weeks into the presidency we have not only filled hundreds of key positions, but we have done so with the highest ethical bar in government history," Jennifer Psaki, deputy press secretary, said yesterday.

Obama has tapped 71 people to positions requiring Senate confirmation. Of those, 41 have been formally nominated and 28 have been confirmed by the Senate, each taking an average of 65 days from the time they were offered the job.

That pace slowed to six nominations in February, as the White House was forced to search for a new HHS secretary to replace Daschle and vetted two people for the top post at the Commerce Department -- Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), who withdrew a week later, and former Washington governor Gary Locke (D).

Still, Obama is far ahead of his predecessors. By the end of February 2001, then-President George W. Bush had nominated 21 people, while at the same point in 1993, then-President Bill Clinton had nominated 26. And Obama has appointed several hundred people to positions in the bureaucracy that do not require confirmation -- more than Bush or Clinton had at this point.

But Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, whose agency is a critical player in infrastructure spending under the economic stimulus bill, still has called the vetting a "complicated, tortuous process" and a "real slog" that is challenging his department's effectiveness.


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