WASHINGTON – Tom Daschle, the former Senate majority leader and a confidant of President-elect Barack Obama, will be nominated secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services as well as take on a broader role as the administration’s health policy chief, according to several sources close to the transition process.
The early selection of Daschle, who until recently was not known as an expert on health policy, is recognition of the central role he played in Obama’s political ascendancy and a signal that the new president wants an experienced Washington insider to shepherd comprehensive health legislation through Congress.
“Having Senator Daschle at HHS and as the point person for the Obama Administration on health care would only improve the chances of” enacting health reform, said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., who is already pushing for a bill.
If confirmed by the Senate, Daschle would take over a $707.7 billion department with nearly 65,000 employees spread across 11 operating divisions. As HHS secretary, he will be under pressure to revitalize the Food and Drug Administration, bring financial stability to the Medicare and Medicaid programs, and move away from what many researchers have complained is the ideologically-driven scientific agenda of the Bush administration.
For Daschle, 60, the more intriguing challenge may come in his yet-to-be-named role as the White House’s highest-ranking health policy adviser.
When President Bill Clinton attempted a sweeping overhaul of the U.S. health system in 1993, he turned to his wife – not the secretary of HHS – to lead the effort. Daschle, who watched the death of the Clinton bill up close, did not want a repeat of that experience.
“Tom Daschle sees this as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who has had frequent conversations with his former colleague. “On the premier domestic issue of our time, the president-elect sees Tom Daschle with the skills and abilities to bring people together and get this over the finish line.”
A native of South Dakota who served as an Air Force intelligence officer, Daschle spent four terms in the House and three in the Senate. A soft-spoken conciliator, he is nevertheless a fierce competitor who surprised many when he defeated Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., in the 1994 race for Senate Democratic leader, a job he went on to hold for a decade. From a policy perspective, he was best known for his work on veterans’ affairs, ethanol subsidies and rural issues.
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