Why Daschle Quit and Who’s Next

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February 3, 2009 11:37 a.m.

I’m still reporting but what I’ve heard jibes with what’s come out in the last couple of hours: That Daschle made the decision to go himself after the New York Times op-ed and the sense that the opposition could grow and not diminish over the next week. No one in the administration wanted to talk him out of it but they weren’t going to pull the plug either. President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and Congressional liasion Phil Schilero had all been making calls on Daschle’s behalf through yesterday and Daschle’s apologetic tone seemed to help. Still, White House officials knew that the story was likely to get worse next week when Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner is scheduled to announce more detailed plans for bailing out the financial industry. That is likely to once again raise the issue of executive compensation. “Those aren’t good atmospherics to be discussing free limo rides,” said one Democrat close to the White House.

While no Democrat in the Senate had come out against his nomination, Republican opposition to his nomination as Secretary of Health and Human Services was growing. This morning he called White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel to say he was quitting. (Obama later spoke with Daschle from the president’s private study off the Oval Office.) This morning’s announced withdrawal of Nancy Killefer, nominated to the newly created post of Chief Performance Officer, made White House officials more appreciative of Daschle’s withdrawal. Had he stayed in the administration would have been seen as sexist, backing two male candidates with tax problems (Daschle and Treasury Secretary Tim Getihner) and jettisoning one woman. Daschle saved them the trouble of explaining that one. That said, Obama has to go on all the network news show tonite and talk about these withdrawals rather than the economic crisis and the stimulus package, his original reason for booking the interviews with the Katie Couric, Brian Williams and Charlie Gibson.The withdrawal of Daschle has not only scrambled things for the White House but for lobbies all over Washington who knew Daschle well and now have to deal with a big uncertainty about who will take over the largest cabinet agency–in terms of spending–as well as the health care czar post. (I was supposed to meet with the legislative team of one organization closely tracking health care this morning but they had to cancel to deal with the Daschle fallout.)

One Democrat close to the White House thought that President Obama was now likely to split the posts of HHS Secretary and health czar if he couldn’t find someone with Daschle’s outsized reputation to full both but this person thought the president still wanted someone with gravitas who might fill both jobs. A couple of names being tossed about include Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius but not former physician/governors Howard Dean of Vermont or John Kitzaber of Oregon who this Democrat didn’t think would be considered, Dean because he’s considered too partisan and Kitzaber because he’s a bit of an odd bird. Rep. Vic Snyder of Arkansas, the only member of Congress who is both a physician and a lawyer, might be a dark horse but as a backbencher probably not a commanding enough figure to fill Daschle’s shoes. This person did not think a policy aide like Jeanne Lambrew would be considered. Another long shot: Jay Rockefeller. He’d have to give up chairmanship of the Senate Intelligence Committee and he just won reelection in West Virginia. But the five-term Senator he has a long time interest in health care and the governor of the state, Joe Manchin, is a Democrat. But this was speculation. Said the source: “The problem with having a former Senate Majority Leader go down is that anyone who replaces him looks small by comparison.”

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