Daschle Withdraws From Cabinet Nomination
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
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And I'm Melissa Block.
There were some major setbacks for President Barack Obama today. Former Senator Tom Daschle, tapped to overhaul the nation's health care system, withdrew his Cabinet nomination. Daschle was embroiled in questions about $140,000 in delinquent taxes - most of that for a car and driver - and a potential appearance problems with his highly paid work as a Washington consultant. The withdrawal was a surprise and it left a hole in White House plans for health care reform.
SIEGEL: The former Senate majority leader was named to be secretary of Health and Human Services and White House coordinator for all health policy. Also today, Nancy Killefer, nominated as the chief performance officer, overseeing government efficiency, withdrew her name, also citing tax matters. All of this raised questions about how candidates for top jobs are vetted. NPR's Don Gonyea has the first of two reports.
DON GONYEA: It was the rockiest day yet for the still new Obama administration. The day began routinely enough. The big event on the schedule was to be the nomination of Republican New Hampshire Senator Judd Gregg as Commerce secretary. It was another win for bipartisanship. The president talked about the economic challenges ahead.
President BARACK OBAMA: These are the tasks of the Commerce Department. And I believe that Judd Gregg is the right person to help guide the department towards these goals.
GONYEA: That was at 11:00 AM. But already, the White House was losing control of the day's storyline. Just before the Commerce announcement, news broke that Nancy Killefer had withdrawn her name from nomination to the chief performance officer job. That's a newly created White House position. She, too, cited tax problems - problems that had been reported nearly a month ago - relating to a household employee. It was less than a $1,000, a tiny amount, compared to Daschle.
But if you count Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, that made three top Obama nominees to have a tax issue. But the Killefer news had barely taken hold when the big surprise of the day came, that Tom Daschle had contacted the president to say he was stepping aside. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs was pressed to explain why the Daschle and Killefer departures.
Mr. ROBERT GIBBS (White House Press Secretary): I think they both recognized that you can't set an example of responsibility, but accept a different standard in who serves.
GONYEA: Gibbs provided no details of conversations the president had with Daschle or of White House views on any lapses in the vetting process. In the official written statement, Mr. Obama said he accepted Daschle's decision with sadness and regret. Gibbs also avoided giving a timeline of when and how both decisions came down. He insisted that each nominee came to the decision to withdraw on their own.
Mr. GIBBS: Each also decided they couldn't distract from the agenda that the president was pursuing. The agenda that he was pursuing is bigger than them, it's bigger than me, it's bigger than any of us that serve at the pleasure of the president of the United States.
GONYEA: He said the need to now find replacements will not slow the work of the administration. As a candidate, Mr. Obama said health care would be a priority. And in Daschle, he had someone with deep experience with the issue and in dealing with the Congress. Today, Gibbs said, the search for a new nominee is underway. He would not mention any names. Gibbs also insisted that these tax problems do not tarnish the administration's reputation as an agent for change and for high ethical standards.
But on Capitol Hill, Republican Senator John Ensign said the Daschle nomination was flawed from the beginning. And he raised doubts about the president's commitment to real change.
Senator JOHN ENSIGN (Republican, Nevada): President Obama has said that he wants to stop the revolving door, that he doesn't want lobbyists as part of his administration.
GONYEA: But Ensign went on to say that while not registered as a lobbyist, Daschle made millions of dollars working for a lobbying and law firm.
Sen. ENSIGN: That just seems disingenuous to me, and I don't think passes a smell test.
GONYEA: But Senate Leader Harry Reid said Daschle was the right choice.
Senator HARRY REID (Democrat, Nevada): He's written a book on health care. He is a person who is really ideally suited to be the secretary of HHS, but there were some - things came up. And as everyone knows, Senator Daschle's like a brother to me, and he made the decision personally to withdraw. I support his decision.
GONYEA: So now the Obama administration continues to work to solve the economic stimulus package, while also filling some key personnel slots, while it also sorts out the events of a day that underscores just how unpredictable Washington can be.
Don Gonyea, NPR News, the White House.