WASHINGTON – As he battles this week to save his nomination to be secretary of Health and Human Services, one thing is certain: No one in Washington has a better-positioned network of allies in the Obama administration than Thomas A. Daschle.
Over three decades on Capitol Hill, including 10 years as the Senate Democratic leader, Daschle has nurtured one of the largest, most experienced talent pools in the city. They guided Barack Obama from his first days in the Senate, through the presidential race and into the White House. His tentacles, moreover, stretch far beyond the agency Obama picked him to lead, reaching across the entire administration from the upper echelons of the White House to mid-level departmental positions to Obama’s kitchen Cabinet.
The network is being tapped this week as Daschle and his allies scramble to explain why he did not pay more than $100,000 in back taxes, primarily for the use of a car and driver for three years. After a 75-minute closed-door meeting Monday with the Senate Finance Committee, he emerged ashen-faced and apologetic. His confirmation vote has been postponed until at least the middle of next week.
Republicans remained noncommittal Monday, weighing the cost benefits of perhaps killing the nomination of a former colleague and close personal friend of the president. Democrats rose to Daschle’s defense, including, most notably, the man who would be without much of his top staff were it not for Daschle.
Asked Monday morning if he stands by Daschle, Obama said firmly: “Absolutely.”
If he weathers the tax controversy, Daschle probably will take office as one of the best-connected Cabinet secretaries in the administration, if not history.
At least a dozen Daschle alumni are stepping into the highest positions of the federal government. Already, Obama and Vice President Joe Biden have tapped Daschle veterans to manage their staffs, guide foreign policy and craft public relations strategy. In addition to the new HHS chief of staff, the chiefs of staff to Biden, the National Security Council and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner all worked for Daschle. His allies oversaw Obama’s transition team – including vetting Daschle himself – and one serves as the president’s personal lawyer.