Daschle: A Cabinet secretary in exile

Greg Nash

Tom Daschle is a Cabinet secretary in exile. 

Despite giving up his chance to lead healthcare reform, the former Senate majority leader remains deeply involved in the implementation of ObamaCare.

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Aside from speaking with President Obama “on occasion,” Daschle (D-S.D.) said he is in frequent contact with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), White House chief of staff Denis McDonough, and Obama aides Phil Schiliro and Dan Pfeiffer, among other deputies.

“I don’t know if I have power now per se,” Daschle told The Hill during an interview in his downtown office at the law firm DLA Piper. “I don’t see it as power as much as I see it as having a place at the table.”

In another sign of his behind-the-scenes influence, Daschle has attended White House meetings with Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, the woman who took the Cabinet position that slipped from his grasp in 2009.

Sebelius has taken heat for her handling of the ObamaCare rollout, with some lawmakers calling for her to be fired over the botched launch of the federal website, HealthCare.gov.

Daschle blamed the disastrous launch on the development process and said it wasn’t Sebelius’s fault.

“If you’re really going to boil it down, they had policy people running the technology side of things,” Daschle said.

“You needed a team of people who knew the technology and tested it frequently and included the stakeholders. [White House Chief Technology Officer] Todd Park is a genius, and I really have a huge amount of admiration for him, but he didn’t have the authority or the opportunity to put the team together that he needed to.”

Daschle was adamant that the position of HHS secretary is “not open” to him or anyone else, and he predicted Sebelius would stay on for the remainder of Obama’s term.

“I think she’s perfect for the role,” he said.

Still, Daschle acknowledged he deeply wanted the HHS position at the start of Obama’s first term, when his failure to pay some taxes forced him to withdraw his name.

“I, of course, regret it,” Daschle said. “I didn’t leave the Senate on my terms, and I didn’t get to HHS on my terms. But that doesn’t mean you can’t figure out other ways to be involved and to add value. … But those were regrettable experiences.”

The former Senate majority leader now keeps busy at legal powerhouse DLA Piper, where he represents brand-name companies, such as Aetna and Novo Nordisk, from across the healthcare world.

Apart from Sundays, he said his schedule is filled with the high-level board meetings, speeches and private breakfasts that consume time for many former lawmakers.

He has never registered as a lobbyist, leading critics to dub the maneuver the “Daschle loophole,” but he insists he has not lobbied his former colleagues since leaving the Senate.

“I’ve never felt comfortable asking my former colleagues for access or for support for things that I want to do,” Daschle said. 

“I’ve never made a call to the Senate, since I left the Senate, on behalf of a client. It’s really just a comfort level thing. ... If someone wants to consider changing the framework, I would not be adverse to it.”

Daschle, who at one point came close to running for president, arrived at his current role after two enormous and unexpected professional upsets.

The first was the 2004 loss of his seat in the Senate, where he remains an occasional presence in the hallways.

The event was a historic victory for Republicans, whose coordinated campaign successfully ousted a sitting party leader, the first time that had happened since the 1950s.

The Republicans took the Senate in the 2002 elections, ending Daschle’s run as majority leader the following January.  Then, in election season 2004, came a no-holds-barred GOP effort that saw President George W. Bush and then-Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) campaign against Daschle in his own state, aggressive moves that surprised observers at the time.

To this day, Daschle bristles at the idea that lawmakers must declare themselves Washington outsiders in order to win public office.

“I think it’s gotten out of hand,” he said.

“It’s become about how you can personally demonstrate that you’re not part of the Washington mess. People that are not part of the city can’t fully appreciate why it’s important to spend more time here.

“It’s good to go home, but it’s also good to be here to legislate,” he said. “One hundred nine [legislative] days this year is not enough. You can’t run a country this complicated, with all the changes we face, in 109 days.”

After he left the Senate, Daschle joined K Street law and lobbying firm Alston & Bird and the Center for American Progress, one of several D.C. think tanks where he remains a leader.

It was around this time that then-Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) began to seriously consider a presidential bid, with Daschle’s encouragement.

After Obama won in 2008, Daschle was his nominee for HHS secretary with the explicit understanding that healthcare reform would follow.

By the next year, however, Daschle withdrew his name. His inadvertent failure to pay certain taxes had come to light and raised ethical concerns about the nascent Obama administration.

“This work will require a leader who can operate with the full faith of Congress and the American people, and without distraction,” Daschle said of healthcare reform at the time.

“Right now, I am not that leader and will not be a distraction.”

This second derailment did not threaten Daschle’s position at the White House, where he immediately participated in meetings about healthcare reform alongside Sebelius.

And from his office perched between the White House and Capitol Hill, he gave a telling answer that suggests his desire to remain in public life.

Asked whom he admires in politics, he named Jerry Brown, California’s Democratic governor who returned to the executive’s seat in his 70s, after a 28-year hiatus from that same position.

“I admire him a lot,” Daschle said of Brown. “I guess I couldn’t call him a friend. We’ve known each other casually for a while. But he would be one.”