Drama Surrounds Cabinet Picks Daschle, Gregg

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The final piece of President Obama's Cabinet puzzle appears to be in place — a political deal has Republican Sen. Judd Gregg headed for Commerce. And new details are out today on the tax problems of former Sen. Tom Daschle, Obama's nominee for secretary of Health and Human Services. Host Jacki Lyden speaks with NPR's senior Washington editor Ron Elving about Obama's Cabinet dramas.


From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Jacki Lyden. "No-Drama Obama," that was the name aides gave candidate Barack Obama during his always-on-message campaign last year.

Well, today there's certainly some drama. It involves the president's cabinet choices. Senator Tom Daschle is up for Health and Human Services secretary. A Senate committee meets tomorrow to discuss the South Dakota Democrat's tax troubles.

And the only cabinet slot that hasn't been finalized yet, Commerce secretary, appears to be firming up. NPR Senior Washington Editor Ron Elving has been monitoring all this palace intrigue. And Ron, let's start with Tom Daschle. What's the latest?

RON ELVING: The latest is we've learned that he made more than $5 million over the last couple of years giving speeches and counseling to a variety of investment groups and industries, including hundreds of thousands of dollars from the health-care industry itself.

Now, it was no secret how he was making his living, but the amounts are pretty stunning in these times. And it raises the question of how he represents something other than business as usual in Washington.

President Obama told us there was going to be a new day and a new system, but here we have a former Senate majority leader who had 128,000 in unpaid taxes because of a chauffeured limousine service he didn't think was taxable income. And he knew about it for some while and didn't tell the vetters for Obama about it until pretty much he'd already been nominated. So it's a very bad little cloud over this nomination.

LYDEN: Do you think his nomination is really in any trouble?

ELVING: There's been no indication yet that this is going to cost him confirmation of his nomination. People think on Capitol Hill that Tom Daschle is the right guy for this job, and this probably doesn't change that.

So it's going to depend on what the Senate finance committee does tomorrow. But if the president stands behind him and the Democratic leaders stand behind him, and the Republicans don't really want to make this say a major fight, I'm not seeing this being even as big a vote against him as it was for Tim Geithner.

LYDEN: Mmm. Now to Commerce secretary - Bill Richardson withdrew because of an investigation in his home state of New Mexico. Now, the choice appears to be Judd Gregg, the Republican senator from New Hampshire.

Today, on CBS's "Face The Nation," the Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell, indicated that the path had been cleared for Gregg's nomination.

(Soundbite of "Face The Nation")

Senator MITCH MCCONNELL (Republican, Kentucky; Senate Minority Leader): Whoever is appointed to replace him would caucus with Senate Republicans. So I think it would have no impact on the balance of power in the Senate.

LYDEN: Ron, what are the politics behind that very political calculation?

ELVING: The big objection to having Judd Gregg move out of the Senate right now and be the third Republican in the cabinet came from Republicans who said, wait a minute, that could give the Democrats 60 votes in the Senate and give them the power to cut off debate and filibusters.

So what deal has apparently been struck here would allow New Hampshire Governor John Lynch, a Democrat, to appoint someone other than a Democrat to fill the vacancy.

LYDEN: Enough of the politics of personality. The Senate has some seriously dramatic business on its plate this week and that, of course, is the economic stimulus plan.

ELVING: Oh yes, the substance of it all. Well, the Senate is going to try to amend what the House passed on a very partisan vote so as to produce a somewhat less partisan vote, something where there was a little more cooperation between the parties.

This is an enormous bill, $900 billion at this point, and it's a hydra-headed creature serving several masters. One is immediate job creation, most people are for that, but there are longer-term elements in it, too, having to do with energy policy, health-care policy, education policy. And some of that is going to have to be adjusted if President Obama wants a bipartisan bill out of the Senate.

LYDEN: NPR's Senior Washington Editor Ron Elving, thanks for filling us in on the week ahead.

ELVING: My pleasure, Jacki.

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