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Obama Leans Toward GOP's Gregg For Commerce

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Obama Leans Toward GOP's Gregg For Commerce

Politics

Obama Leans Toward GOP's Gregg For Commerce

Obama Leans Toward GOP's Gregg For Commerce

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President Obama is apparently on the cusp of nominating Sen. Judd Gregg, a New Hampshire Republican, as secretary of commerce. We explore why he made this unusual move.

ALEX COHEN, host:

If Lehman Brothers hiring new employees sounds odd, how about this? Barack Obama is picking a Republican to fill the post of Commerce secretary. Here to chat about that and filling the last of the new cabinet posts is NPR's senior Washington editor Ron Elving. Hi, Ron.

RON ELVING: Good to be with you, Alex.

COHEN: This choice for Commerce secretary, Judd Greg, is a Republican. That's a bit of a surprise coming from a Democrat, no?

ELVING: A bit of a surprise, although Barack Obama has said he wants to have Republicans in his cabinet, and he's got Bob Gates at Defense, and he's got Ray Lahood already at Transportation. But here comes Judd Greg. He is a three-term senator. He's 62 a little later on this month. He is seen as a New England Republican who can work with Democrats, and he's done that, both as the ranking member on budget and earlier when he worked with Ted Kennedy on the Health Committee.

And you know, he was also the guy they chose to sub for Al Gore when George W. Bush was practicing his debates in 2000 because he reminded a lot of Republicans of Al Gore in his personal demeanor.

COHEN: Might this be part of the president's effort to get more Republican votes for his economic stimulus package in the Senate than he did in the House where he received none?

ELVING: Absolutely zero. Exactly. Yes, in a way, its part of his effort to reach out to Republicans generally, get more centrist Republicans at least to at least think about voting for the stimulus package and have something to say about it in a bargain. But you know, it was also seen as an attempt to get more votes for Democrats, generally, in the Senate by getting one Republican out and having the Democratic governor of New Hampshire appoint a Democrat to take his place.

Now we're told that's not what's at foot here, because the Democratic Governor John Lynch has apparently agreed not to install a Democrat in Judd Gregg's place.

COHEN: Later today, the Senate will be voting on the nomination of Eric Holder to be attorney general. Originally, that was thought to be one of the toughest confirmation fights but didn't quite turn out that way. What happened?

ELVING: Well, things got smoother for Eric Holder. Concern about his role in the controversial pardon back in the Clinton Administration eight years ago has abated as the process has gone on. There were only two votes against him on committee. That's out of 19 votes. And at the same time, and maybe more important, things got rougher for some other cabinet appointees who were supposed to have smooth sailing, for instance, Bill Richardson at Commerce. He withdrew his nomination and concern about an investigation back in New Mexico, Tim Geitner at Treasury got in trouble for delayed payment of taxes. He eventually got through, but there were 34 votes against him.

And now, Tom Daschle, the former Senate Majority Leader, is in trouble for much grander scale failure to pay taxes in a timely manner, and he was supposed to be the secretary of Health and Human Services. And now, that's somewhat in doubt.

COHEN: And where does that stand? Today, President Obama said he still supports Daschle. So what happens from here?

ELVING: No question the White House is standing behind him, but there is a meeting later today of the Senate Finance Committee, a closed-door meeting, where we're expecting Tom Daschle to come in and try to answer everybody's questions about the income that he had not reported and whether or not it was really his fault and whether or not he has done everything he needs to do to reassure everyone that he can take this job with no cloud over his head.

COHEN: Ron, when we check in with you again next Monday, which of the remaining cabinet spots do you think might still be a problem?

ELVING: My guess is they're all going to be either filled or on their way to being filled by one week from today.

COHEN: NPR senior Washington editor, Ron Elving. Thanks.

ELVING: Thank you, Alex.

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Daschle, Facing Senate Panel, Apologizes On Taxes

President Obama's nominee to head the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services sought Monday to explain why he recently paid $140,000 in back taxes and interest.

Fighting to salvage his Cabinet nomination, Tom Daschle pleaded his case in a closed evening meeting with former Senate colleagues.

Afterward, Daschle had this apology: "My failure to recognize that the use of a car was income and not a gift from a good friend was a mistake. When I realized the mistake, I notified officials and I paid the tax in full. It was completely inadvertent. But that's no excuse, and I deeply apologize."

In an earlier letter to the panel, Daschle, the former Senate majority leader and Democratic senator from South Dakota, said he was "deeply embarrassed and disappointed" by the tax errors.

"I apologize for the errors and profoundly regret that you have had to devote time to them," Daschle said in a letter to Sen. Max Baucus of Montana, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, and Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, the top Republican on the panel.

Baucus said Monday he is not backing away from his support for Daschle's nomination, calling his former colleague an "invaluable and expert partner in reforming the health care system."

Obama, asked at the White House whether he was standing by his nomination, answered, "Absolutely." He did not elaborate.

The committee met in a closed session Monday afternoon. Daschle was expected to face questions from panel members.

Daschle recently filed amended returns to reflect $128,203 in back taxes and $11,964 in interest owed. A financial disclosure form turned over about a week ago also shows that he earned $200,000 in speaking fees in the past two years for talks he gave to the health care industry.

Jenny Backus, a spokeswoman for Daschle, said the money he earned in speaking fees from health care interests do not pose a conflict for the health care overhaul effort President Obama wants him to lead.

"He welcomed every opportunity to make his case to the American public at large and the health industry in particular that America can't afford to ignore the health care crisis any longer," Backus said.

Daschle's amended returns reflect additional income for the years 2005-2007 for consulting work, the use of a car service and reduced deductions for charitable contributions.

Backus said Daschle did not learn until late December that the car service — valued at more than $250,000 over three years — was subject to taxes. The issue did not come up at Daschle's first hearing before members of the Senate Health, Labor and Pensions Committee on Jan. 8.

According to a financial statement filed with the Office of Government Ethics, among the health care interest groups paying Daschle for speeches were America's Health Insurance Plans, $40,000 for two speeches; CSL Behring, $30,000; the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy, $16,000; and the Principal Life Insurance Co., $15,000.

Daschle said in a letter to the Department of Health and Human Services ethics office that if he's confirmed by the Senate, he will resign as a senior policy adviser at the Washington law firm of Alston & Bird LLP. He reported earnings of more than $2 million from that firm during the past two years.

Daschle also earned more than $2 million in consulting fees from InterMedia Advisors LLC of New York, an investment firm specializing in buyouts and industry consolidation. He said he also intends to resign from that firm upon his confirmation.

From NPR staff and The Associated Press

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