The Obama administration expressed contrition and sadness over the withdrawal of Tom Daschle's nomination to head the Department of Health and Human Services, saying that the former Senate Majority Leader's tax troubles would have posed too much a burden.
"He did not want to be a distraction to that agenda. Senator Daschle has served this country for almost three decades with distinction and I think America can be proud of that service," said spokesman Robert Gibbs. "I think they both realized that you can't set an example of responsibility but accept a different standard in your service."
Gibbs insisted that the White House had not told Daschle to drop his nomination, repeatedly saying the choice was strictly his. "I don't know how much more clearly I can say 'no,'" Gibbs said after multiple queries.
Gibbs also told reporters that the president remained satisfied that the vetting process -- which has witnessed three nominees withdrawing their nominations and another bogged down by similar tax concerns -- was thorough and effective.
"The president is quite confident in the people that serve in this White House and in this administration," he said. "We have set a standard of ethics and accountability that is unseen or matched by any previous administration in our country's history."
Gibbs struck a tone of defiance, arguing that Daschle's withdrawal underscored the administration's commitment to outstanding ethical policies and would not deter President Obama from pursuing comprehensive health care reform.
"The effort is far bigger than any one individual," Gibbs said. "Americans pay more for health care and get less from it that any other industrialized country on the planet."
Democrats, it seems, are torn over the prudence of Daschle's departure. On the one hand, the ethical clouds that hung over his nomination posed serious obstacles to his ability to push legislation through Congress. On the other, ethical mishaps in Washington can be quickly forgotten. And Daschle, unlike other possible candidates for the post, was uniquely positioned to persuade the Senate to back Obama's health reform cause.
As of Tuesday morning, Democratic aides on Capitol Hill were predicting Daschle's survival based solely on the latter premise. In private, a few progressives expressed a sense of relief that the issue was put to its miserable end, arguing that Daschle's withdrawal gave Obama a stronger platform to tout his commitment to ethics and government.
As for a possible Daschle replacement named by progressives -- former DNC Chair and Vermont Gov. Howard Dean -- Gibbs declined to speculate.
"I have been given many opportunities to play the name game, and I don't want to spin that wheel," he said.
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