Tom Daschle, nominated to head the Department of Health and Human Services, met behind closed doors for about an hour Monday with members of the Senate Finance Committee. The former Senate majority leader was explaining why he only recently paid more than $140,000 in back taxes and interest.
After the meeting, Daschle told reporters his tax lapses were inadvertent. "I deeply apologize to President Obama, to my colleagues and to the American people," he said.
There are three separate tax issues. First, there are charitable deductions for which Daschle and his wife didn't have adequate documentation. Then there's a clerical error by a client that resulted in Daschle not reporting a monthly payment of nearly $90,000. But the one that's caught the most attention was the use of a car and driver that he failed to report as income.
Democratic members of the committee were quick to defend their former colleague, who represented South Dakota. Kent Conrad of North Dakota said, "Most of the mistakes, frankly, were the mistakes either of his employer or the mistakes of charitable organizations that he contributed to who themselves had not done the appropriate paperwork."
At Monday's White House briefing, Press Secretary Robert Gibbs was forced to defend the second Cabinet nominee in as many weeks to suffer from at least the appearance of impropriety. Gibbs told reporters no one in the administration is insensitive to Daschle's tax issue.
Republicans at the committee meeting agreed not to comment. But John Ensign of Nevada wasn't at the session and later said, "Daschle was on the Finance Committee all those years. I mean, anybody knows. I was a practicing veterinarian; my accountant said, 'You could take 50 percent of your car,' but I didn't claim that. You knew you had to pay your Medicare taxes."
It still seems unlikely that Daschle's nomination is in real trouble. Senate Democrats alone could provide the votes to get him confirmed.