Daschle Withdrawal Could Affect Health Debate
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
And I'm Melissa Block. Former Senator Tom Daschle withdrew today as President Obama's choice to steer the nation's health care policy. Daschle, named as secretary of Health and Human Services and White House health czar, stepped aside amid revelations of more than $140,000 in delinquent taxes and interest. It was a big blow to the Obama administration. We'll hear from a Republican Senator who pushed for Daschle to step down. First, NPR's Julie Rovner reports on the reaction across the Capitol Hill.
JULIE ROVNER: It was grim-faced David Axelrod, President Obama's senior advisor, who emerged from a lunch with Democratic senators to face reporter's questions about Daschle's abrupt departure. Just last night, many of those same Democrats had vowed to see their former colleague confirmed, but Axelrod said Daschle didn't want them to have the fight for him.
Mr. DAVID AXELROD (President Obama's Senior Advisor): We've got enormously important business here in terms of our economic recovery package. Health care reform needs to move forward. And he simply didn't want to, as he said, be a distraction, and so he called this morning and informed us that he was going to withdraw his name.
ROVNER: Among those caught off guard was Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus. He's been counting on his former colleague to help push through a major overhaul of the nation's health care system. Last night, Baucus held a closed-door meeting where members grilled Daschle about his tax lapses, which included a failure to report use of a car and driver valued at more than $250,000. Baucus said he thought the meeting went well.
Mr. MAX BAUCUS (Senate Finance Committee Chairman): There were questions asked by Republican senators, but tone was collegial. It was - I mean, it was not, there was no - not acrimonious. There was no bitterness. There was no hostility. So based on that meeting, I'm a little surprised, frankly, at Senator Daschle's decision.
ROVNER: But others, like Vermont Democrat Patrick Leahy, praised Daschle for being selfless.
Senator PATRICK LEAHY (Democrat, Vermont): We know he would have been confirmed, and I think that he put the interests of the president ahead of his own. And he's admired for that.
ROVNER: Republicans, who had mostly held their fire while the controversy swirled around not only Daschle's taxes but the $5 million he'd earned since leaving the Senate, agreed that Daschle probably did the right thing in pulling out. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina warned that the confirmation hearings scheduled before the Finance Committee next week was likely to be a not-very-pretty affair.
Senator LINDSEY GRAHAM (Republican, South Carolina): Given for what was coming, it was probably a wise move for - clearly, he has the administration's best interests at heart, and I'm sure that's why he withdrew his name.
ROVNER: But other senators, like West Virginia Democrat Jay Rockefeller, still say Daschle was taking a fall he doesn't deserve.
Senator JAY ROCKEFELLER (Democrat, West Virginia): He got brought down by the fact that, you know, he never really had very much money of his own, and he was relying on South Dakota accountant who didn't come true for him and a business friend who never gave him the 1099 form. So he never got, you know, the help, so to speak, that somebody who isn't rich needs.
ROVNER: Now, having disposed of one controversy, the Obama administration faces a completely different but no less difficult problem: who will replace Daschle, not just as HHS secretary, but who will oversee the health reform push. The list of people with his unique qualifications and understanding of both the intricacies of health care and of Congress is a short one indeed, and the clock is already ticking. Julie Rovner, NPR News, Washington.
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