Daschle spares Democrats further embarrassment

How many hiccups can you have before you have a case of the hiccups?

Senate Majority Leader Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidMcConnell goes hands-off on coronavirus relief bill Kamala Harris to young Black women at conference: 'I want you to be ambitious' Obama calls filibuster 'Jim Crow relic,' backs new Voting Rights Act bill MORE (D-Nev.) famously referred to Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner’s failure to pay Social Security and Medicare taxes as a “hiccup.” Others thought a problem that required Geithner to pay $48,000 in back taxes and interest was more serious. But Geithner won confirmation, eased into office by the Senate’s Democratic majority.

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After Geithner, many lawmakers sensed that a new standard had been set. If owing $48,000 in back taxes and interest was now acceptable, what would not be acceptable?

What would happen if a nominee came along who had to pay, say, $140,000 in back taxes and interest? Would that sink a nomination?

When word got out that Tom Daschle, President Obama’s pick to head the Department of Health and Human Services, had paid that amount in back taxes and interest for a limousine and driver supplied by a big Democratic donor, Senate Democrats knew they faced a test.

They had given Geithner a pass. Now they faced a man whose unpaid limo-tax bill was nearly three times what Geithner had owed. Would they give him a pass, too?

At first, it looked like the answer would be yes. Reid, along with other Democratic colleagues, signaled strong support for Daschle. Other senators, like Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), risked making themselves look utterly ridiculous.

A few weeks ago, Conrad called Geithner’s tax problems “completely unacceptable.”

“I’m a former tax commissioner,” Conrad said. “I’ve dealt with hundreds of cases like this one, and in normal times that alone would lead me to oppose his confirmation.”

But Conrad went on to vote for Geithner anyway, and this week, faced with the Daschle situation, the former tax commissioner seemed even more lenient. “I don’t know anyone more honorable, more decent, more honest and more qualified for this position,” Conrad said of his former Senate colleague.

So for a while, it appeared that $140,000 in unpaid taxes and interest was OK, just as Geithner’s $48,000 had been. People were looking at the Obama White House and asking how high the bidding might go.

“Is there an amount of money in unpaid back taxes for any nominee to the president’s Cabinet that would be considered disqualifying?” a reporter asked White House press secretary Robert Gibbs on Monday.

“I’m not going to get into hypotheticals as it relates to that,” Gibbs answered.

Now Gibbs can answer the question. Daschle was too much.

But damage remains. Daschle joins Geithner and the newly withdrawn “chief performance officer,” Nancy Killefer, as top Obama choices who have faced tax troubles.

That’s not just a hiccup. It’s a case of them.

Parting words

I need to close on a personal note. This will be my last column for The Hill. Starting Monday, I am joining The Washington Examiner as its chief political correspondent, and as part of that new assignment I am giving up my space here.

I do that with real regret. It’s been a true pleasure to appear here each week, along with my sometime-page-mate Josh Marshall, under the eye of Editor in Chief Hugo Gurdon. It was Hugo who first suggested beginning a column back in 2003, and I owe him a debt of gratitude for giving me the opportunity to appear in these pages.

So I hope that in the future, in addition to your reading here at The Hill, you’ll look me up in the Examiner and on ExaminerPolitics.com . But in any event, thanks so much for reading.