Obama Confidant Tom Daschle Still Has Hand In Health Care

December 7, 2009 1:17 pm

He’s a once-disgraced former senator straddling two worlds and with a finger on the pulse of health care debate, influential with former colleagues and close to President Obama, but not even employed by the White House.

TPMDC set out to find out what exactly is Tom Daschle’s role in the health care debate.

Some question whether Daschle should be part of the process since he does health care consulting for influential groups who do health care lobbying. He’s not a registered lobbyist. (He was with Alston and Bird most of this year, but just joined DLA Piper).

TPMDC spoke with lawmakers, administration aides and Senate staffers, who said Daschle has been crucial as they negotiate health care. Some said that his role is playing out exactly as they had hoped it would when Daschle was first nominated to be HHS Secretary.His decades of relationships with senators helps him navigate both the executive and legislative branches, they said.

No Formal Role
The White House says he has no formal role, but health care spokeswoman Linda Douglass called him “one of the country’s foremost advocates for health reform.”

“His expertise in legislative strategy and longstanding friendships with senators from both parties put him in a unique position to help Senate leadership chart the course forward,” Douglass told TPMDC.

Daschle backed Obama early in the presidential campaign, and many of his former staffers and political hands jumped to Team Obama and then came to the White House.

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said Obama and Daschle are friends and confidants.

“The president talks to him about health care,” Gibbs told TPMDC, adding that Daschle was deployed to the Hill at the request of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

Reid told Brian Beutler recently that of all the senators he’s served with Daschle is of the highest quality.

“Senator Daschle was the lead person in the Senate for getting the Clinton health care bill through. He is an expert in health care,” Reid said.

Others suggested health care is a challenge the White House wants Daschle keeping an eye on.

“We are doing the things Senator Reid believes would be helpful in his effort to get the bill passed,” said Peter Orszag, director of the Office of Management and Budget.

Aides say Daschle carries with him legislative and health care expertise but stressed his role is more to be a sounding board than to influence policy.

Taxes Tarnished Top Nominee
In February Daschle’s nomination imploded as he had to pay nearly $130,000 in back taxes and interest for failing to report a gift of a private car and driver as income.

Daschle (D-SD), who lost his bid for re-election in 2004, withdrew his nomination and said he didn’t want to be a distraction to health care legislation.

“This work will require a leader who can operate with the full faith of Congress and the American people, and without distraction,” Daschle said in a statement when dropping out 10 months ago.

Senate Finance Committee chairman Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT), who sometimes sparred with Daschle when they both were in the chamber, said at the time the former leader’s expertise would have been valuable.

“Tom would have been, as I said, a terrific partner at HHS on health reform, and I hope and fully expect that he will continue to play a leading and valuable role in health policy for this country,” Baucus said.

Sen. John Kerry said then he thought Daschle made the wrong choice.

“When the smoke clears and the frenzy has ended, no one will believe that this unwitting mistake should have erased thirty years of selfless public service and remarkable legislative skill and expertise on health care,” Kerry said.

Obama aides said at the time Daschle would not serve as the health care czar, a nonconfirmable post that would have allowed him to shape policy from within the White House.

Nancy-Ann DeParle was given that spot instead and Kathleen Sebelius became secretary.

There was a bit of an adjustment period, but most of the staff infrastructure remained the same, and the health care team was fully in place in March.

After the dust settled, Daschle was quiet for months, but resurfaced over the summer.

According to the White House visitors logs that have been released so far, Daschle has been to the White House nearly a dozen times this year, with most of those coming before he withdrew his name. He was there in May, held a July meeting with Vice President Joe Biden and then met with Obama in the Oval Office in August.

The White House publicized the Aug. 21 meeting and issued a rare readout of their discussion, calling it a “check-in on the health insurance reform process” between friends.

They talked about the “process moving forward,” the White House said then.

“The two agreed that substantive reform that lowers costs, reforms the insurance industry, and expands coverage is too important to wait another year or another administration, and they agreed to stay in touch over the coming weeks and months as this critical effort moves forward,” the readout concluded.

Since then, Daschle has attended at least two private meetings with Senate negotiators despite not being on the White House payroll.

Former Sen. Ken Salazar (D-CO), now Secretary of the Interior, has been at Daschle’s side for the meetings on the hill.

Salazar is included in the talks because of his “solid” relationships with centrists and Western senators, Reid spokesman Jim Manley told TPMDC.

“Senator Salazar is an expert at getting along with people,” Reid said.

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