Revelations that Health and Human Services Secretary nominee Tom Daschle had not paid taxes on a private driver is creating much discomfort for Senate Democrats. But while the old guard circles the wagons around their old friend -- saying his health care reform qualifications trump the $140,000 in unpaid taxes -- the new blood is more reticent.
Freshman Senator Tom Udall of New Mexico said on Tuesday that he is neither committed nor opposed to Daschle's nomination. But during an appearance on the Bill Press Show, he worried openly that "those of us in government should set a good example and I'm not sure that this is setting a good example."
And it wasn't just taxes: "There was an issue regarding the use of a jet involving a charity that he was on the board. That to me didn't sound like that much of a problem but it was raised as an issue and Finance has the expertise to look into that," said Udall. "I believe Sen. Daschle traveled down to the Bahamas to speak to the board. And he was on the board of the charity. I don't know all the details there; that is part of what I'm trying to collect before I decide which way to vote on this."
Hill aides expressed certainty that a small but significant number of Senate Democrats would vote against the nomination, in the spirit of the four who cast their ballots against Timothy Geithner's appointment as Treasury Secretary. The hesitancy, they predict, could come from newer Senators who do not have strong ties to Daschle and feel compelled to reaffirm their ethical standards.
One of the Senators who voted against Geithner, Russ Feingold, had not yet commented on the Daschle matter, an aide said. The offices of two others, Sens. Tom Harkin and Robert Byrd, did not return requests for comment. An aide to Bernie Sanders, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats, noted that the Vermonter's opposition to Geithner was over the role he played in the Wall Street bailout and "not because of taxes."
When Sanders met with Daschle two weeks ago, the aide added, "He came away impressed, and Daschle has been a big supporter of community health centers which is a big issue for the senator."
At this point, it seems, Daschle has enough of a support structure to make his way to the Department of Health and Human Services. But not without putting a bit of tar on the Obama administration's ethical facade.
"Unless there is something more that emerges that we don't know about, this is not something that is disqualifying," said Norm Ornstein, an American Enterprise Institute scholar and defender of the president's ethics policies. "But they are going to get a lot of pot shots, in this case from the left and the right."
"A lot of the pot shots from the left are because a lot of people wanted Howard Dean and they were pissed at the way he was treated and this is payback time," Ornstein added. "People on the left thought Obama was one of them, and now he is looking more and more to be from the senate. On the right, they are tired of all the shots Bush took for the culture of corruption and want some payback."
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