Ex-Senate leader Daschle to serve as HHS head

McClatchy NewspapersNovember 19, 2008 

WASHINGTON — Former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, a veteran of Capitol Hill and a backer of the Clinton administration's failed health-care effort of the early 1990s, is President-elect Barack Obama's choice to be secretary of health and human services.

The HHS secretary will play a major role in working with Congress on Obama's campaign promise to expand health-care coverage for Americans through a combination of broader eligibility, more subsidies and employer mandates.

The Obama transition team made no announcement Wednesday regarding Daschle, but several well-placed insiders confirmed it. The campaign announced that Obama's chief campaign strategist, David Axelrod, will serve as senior adviser to the president.

Obama aides also confirmed that Greg Craig, a former Clinton administration lawyer and Obama foreign-policy adviser, will serve as White House counsel.

Craig has worked for high-profile clients including Elian Gonzalez's father, John Hinckley Jr. and Kofi Annan and on President Bill Clinton's impeachment defense. Craig could play a key role in Obama's plans to close the prison camp at Guantanamo and to reshape interrogation policy for terrorism suspects.

A list of 11 transition advisers who'll recommend how Obama can turn his campaign promises into administration policy also was released Wednesday.

Because Daschle is on that list as the health-care policy working-group leader, speculation swirled over whether other working group leaders also might be tapped for Cabinet or other key administration posts. James Steinberg, former Clinton deputy national security adviser, and former Assistant Secretary of State Susan Rice are co-leaders of the working group on national security.

A knowledgeable Democratic official confirmed Daschle's selection, speaking on the condition of anonymity because she wasn't authorized to discuss it. Officials with several health advocacy organizations also confirmed the selection.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., who'd play a key role in any health-care overhaul in Congress, said that Daschle "knows health care, he knows the Congress and the rhythms of the Senate in particular" and that having him be the administration's point man would improve the chances for passing overhaul legislation. Daschle didn't respond to a request for comment.

Daschle has advocated creating a national board to oversee health care, similar to how the Federal Reserve regulates finance. He's also said that it may be easier now for a president and Congress to agree on a national health-care expansion than it was in the early 1990s because the crisis has worsened.

The former South Dakota senator, who lost his bid for re-election in 2004, has been serving as a "special public policy adviser" with the Washington law and lobbying firm of Alston & Bird, where Robert Dole, a former Republican presidential candidate and Kansas senator, has a similar job. Daschle's portfolio there includes health care, renewable energy, financial services, telecommunications and taxes, according to the firm's Web site.

Daschle, who's 60, isn't working as a lobbyist, which probably would have precluded him from getting a Cabinet post because of Obama's aversion to lobbyists serving in his administration. Daschle is married to a lobbyist, Linda Hall Daschle, who specializes in aviation and homeland security.

Republican National Committee spokesman Alex Conant issued a statement saying that Tom Daschle "has worked for a major lobbying firm" and saying that Obama supporters who are hoping to see more Washington outsiders and fewer lobbyist connections should be disappointed.

Word of the Daschle pick, however, which follows leaks that former Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder is expected to get the top Justice Department post and that Sen. Hillary Clinton is being considered for secretary of state, suggests that Obama wants to assemble a Cabinet with Washington experience and good prospects for quick Senate confirmation.

Medicare and Medicaid fall under HHS jurisdiction, as do the Food and Drug Administration, the National Institutes of Health and the organization that provides health care to Native Americans and Alaskan natives.

In addition to his work for Alston & Bird, Daschle is a senior fellow with the Center for American Progress, the center-left research center run by Obama transition chief of staff John Podesta. Daschle's book, "Critical: What We Can Do About the Health-Care Crisis," was published earlier this year. He's also a co-chair of ONE Vote '08, a bipartisan campaign to focus more government resources on global health care and poverty.

The former Senate majority leader was one of Obama's earliest presidential campaign supporters. He served as a national campaign co-chairman for Obama and was considered a contender for the White House chief of staff position, which went instead to Illinois Rep. Rahm Emanuel.

Obama's transition team also announced Wednesday that Lisa Brown, the executive director of the American Constitution Society for Law and Policy and former counsel to Vice President Al Gore, will be White House staff secretary. Chris Lu, Obama's Senate legislative director, will be Cabinet secretary.

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