Senate welcomes Daschle warmly

Former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) received a predictably warm reception from his one-time colleagues at a Thursday hearing to consider his nomination to President-elect Obama’s Cabinet.

The former Democratic leader appeared before the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee to answer questions about his pending nomination to be secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS); Obama also appointed Daschle director of the newly created White House Office of Health Reform.

ADVERTISEMENT
Committee Chairman Edward Kennedy (Mass.) and fellow Democrats praised Obama’s choice of Daschle to lead the incoming administration’s campaign for broad reform of the U.S. healthcare system.

“Tom Daschle is a leader of great integrity and strong dedication. He has served his nation with distinction, both in uniform and in the Senate,” Kennedy said. “Reform is urgently needed and Tom Daschle is just the person for the job.”

Daschle said he’s up to the task.

“If confirmed, I will use these dual roles to marshal the talent and energy necessary to at least succeed in making healthcare affordable and accessible to all Americans,” he said. “I’m grateful to the president-elect for putting his trust in me, and I look forward to returning to public service for this pivotal moment in American history.”

Daschle said the Obama administration would work with Congress on drafting its health reform proposal, something Daschle previously said the Clinton administration did not do during its failed attempt at reform in the 1990s.

“President-elect Obama recognizes that many of you have been working for many years on these issues and that any effort at reform will require very close collaborations with Congress. He also realizes that change cannot be dictated from the White House or from Washington out but must come from the grass roots of this country and involve as many Americans as possible,” Daschle said.

Republicans on the committee shared in the praise for the former Senate Democratic leader and three-term member of the upper chamber, strongly suggesting an easy path to confirmation.

“I want to work with you and President-elect Obama to help every American get high-quality, affordable health insurance,” said Wyoming Sen. Mike Enzi, the committee’s ranking Republican. “The American people deserve solutions, not just debate.”

Enzi said the panel’s GOP members “look forward to a quick confirmation.” He noted that the Senate confirmed both of President Bush’s HHS secretaries, Tommy Thompson and Mike Leavitt, within weeks of their HELP Committee hearings.

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), who chaired the panel in the 1980s, offered an explicit endorsement of Daschle’s nomination. “I think you’ll make a great secretary of Health and Human Services,” Hatch said.

Sen. John Thune (R), who ousted Daschle in a brutal 2004 race, told The Hill on Wednesday that he, too, intended to support his former rival.

Former Senate Majority Leader and 1996 GOP presidential nominee Bob Dole (R-Kan.) introduced Daschle at the hearing, alongside South Dakota Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson.

Dole lauded Daschle’s “integrity and fairness” and said, “If anybody understands Congress, it’s Tom Daschle.” Dole and Daschle are colleagues at Alston + Bird, where Dole is a registered lobbyist and Daschle is an adviser. Daschle, Dole and fellow ex-Majority Leaders Howard Baker (R-Tenn.) and George Mitchell (D-Maine) are the founders of the Bipartisan Policy Center.

As if to illustrate his stated intention to reach out to Republicans, Daschle indicated his opposition to the Senate utilizing the fast-track budget-reconciliation process to advance health reform legislation.

Senate Democrats have considered utilizing this process, which limits amendments and needs only a simple majority to pass the chamber. Republicans, however, intensely oppose the maneuver and have indicated that Democrats risk a GOP boycott of health reform if they take that route.

In response to a question from Enzi, Daschle said he wants to see health reform legislation move through regular order. “Our goal, our hope, our desire and determination is to use what you referred to properly as the regular order. … We need that input, we need that involvement,” he said.

Daschle also told the committee that the incoming administration would “fill our team of leadership within HHS within the next few weeks” by naming Obama’s nominees to lead agencies such as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and National Institutes of Health.

Though a president’s HHS nominee traditionally appears before the HELP Committee prior to a confirmation vote, the Finance Committee actually has the authority to recommend or not recommend nominees to the Senate. Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.), who sparred with Daschle when he was Democratic leader, has not yet scheduled a confirmation hearing.

Though committee Republicans refrained from attacking Daschle or the incoming Obama administration’s positions on contentious healthcare issues, their comments and questions offered hints as to the subjects of future fights.

Enzi, for example, rejected the notion of creating a publicly financed health plan that would compete with private insurance, which is a major component of Obama’s health reform platform. Enzi also stated his opposition to the Democratic aim of giving the FDA the authority to regulate tobacco products.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) expressed concern that Democrats’ plans to reduce spending on private health insurance plans in the Medicare Advantage program would limit access to the benefit in rural states. Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) used the hearing as an opportunity to sound off on his concerns about the fiscal unsustainability of Medicare.