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Daschle Picked to Lead Health and Human Services

By Alex Wayne, CQ Staff

November 19, 2008 -- Former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle is President-elect Barack Obama's choice to lead the Department of Health and Human Services, an appointment that many Democrats predict will greatly help with efforts next year to overhaul the health care system.

A Democratic congressional aide confirmed that Daschle would be nominated to head the department. The aide requested anonymity because the nomination has not been publicly announced by Obama or his office.

Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., said Daschle did not deny he would be nominated in a phone conversation Wednesday afternoon. "I congratulated him and he didn't say, 'Hey, wait a minute.'"

Many Democrats and health-related interest groups expressed enthusiasm for the appointment.

"It's great news," said Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, D-Conn., who sits on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

"I think it's tremendous," said Sen. Max Baucus, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, which has jurisdiction over Medicare and Medicaid. "He knows the rhythms of this outfit; he knows the players."

However, a government watchdog group, Public Citizen, warned that Daschle's work for a lobbying firm may put him at odds with Obama policies aimed at limiting lobbyists' influence on the government.

Daschle, 60, served three terms as a senator from South Dakota and led Senate Democrats from 1995 until he was ousted in 2004 by Republican John Thune. He was majority leader of the Senate for 18 months of the 107th Congress, but found the job frustrating: with just a one-vote majority, Democrats were unable to advance any notable legislation against opposition from Republicans and President Bush, and voters returned the chamber to firm Republican control in the 108th Congress. Daschle considered running for president in 2004 but changed his mind the night before the 108th Congress convened.

Since his defeat, Daschle has worked as an advisor for the lobbying firm Alston & Bird and has served as a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a Democratic think tank. In February, Daschle published a book, "Critical: What We Can Do About the Health-Care Crisis," with Jeanne Lambrew, a health policy expert who is an associate professor at the University of Texas and also a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. In the book, the two propose expanding government health care programs to cover everyone in America.

Obama is close to Daschle, and reportedly considered him as his White House chief of staff, a job that instead went to Rep. Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill. But as HHS Secretary, Daschle is expected to be Obama's primary contact with Congress as lawmakers try to craft and pass an overhaul of the health care system.

Baucus says that an overhaul aimed at providing insurance coverage to all or most Americans and reducing the costs of health care will be his committee's top priority next year. It also is the top priority of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., the chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. The two panels will share jurisdiction over any legislation that touches both private and public insurance programs.

"The appointment of Senator Daschle as Secretary of the Health and Human Services Department is the best news possible for those who want to achieve meaningful health care reform," Ron Pollack, executive director of Families USA, a left-leaning consumer interest group that focuses on health issues, said in a statement. "Senator Daschle has a deep commitment to securing high-quality, affordable health care for everyone in our nation. His new leadership position confirms that the incoming Obama Administration has made health care reform a top and early priority for action in 2009."

Democratic aides say Daschle is well suited to the role.

A health care overhaul, said a senior Senate Democratic aide, "is going to need someone who can work well with Congress. There's a lot of parties up here that want to be involved. It's going to take someone who can bring people together and build consensus.

"I think he can do that; he seems to have a good relationship with Obama, which means that he'll be involved. A lot of times that's what important—having the relationships to bring people together."

A senior House Democratic aide agreed. "I think it'll mean a lot of good things for health reform. I think it will definitely be a positive and will help immensely to get things done."

But before Daschle is confirmed for the post, he and Obama may have to explain why his work for Alston & Bird does not disqualify him from working in the government. One of Obama's ethics rules forbids political appointees from working on "regulations or contracts directly and substantially related to their prior employer for two years."

Daschle is not and has never been a registered lobbyist; as a result, he has not had to file disclosure forms to Congress listing his clients or issues he works on. According to Alston & Bird's Web site, he advises clients on "issues related to all aspects of public policy with a particular emphasis on issues related to financial services, health care, energy, telecommunications, and taxes."

The firm's clients include many health care companies, including hospitals, drug manufacturers, drug stores, and insurers, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

"This firm, on behalf of these companies, has specifically lobbied CMS and HHS," said Taylor Lincoln, a research director at Public Citizen, who blogged about Daschle's potential entanglements on Wednesday. "It just seems to me that if Daschle has involvement with much of any of them, then something he's going to do in the next two years is going to affect regulations and contracts involving these companies."

An Obama spokesman could not be reached Wednesday evening, and Daschle himself did not respond to an e-mail seeking comment.

Drew Armstrong, Lydia Gensheimer, Kathleen Hunter and Keith Perine contributed to this report.

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