Daschle withdraws as HHS head; ‘meaningful health reform’ up in air

Former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle — who kicked off the Obama administration’s campaign to “bring meaningful health reform”to all Americans at a conference in Denver two months ago — withdrew as the nominee to run the Department of Health and Human Services Tuesday afternoon as criticism mounted over his late payment of more than $140,000 in back taxes and interest. Daschle stepped down less than 24 hours after delivering a plaintive apology and winning a ringing endorsement from President Barack Obama, who said Monday night he was “absolutely” standing by his choice to head HHS and steer a massive overhaul of the nation’s health care system.

Obama’s statement on Daschle’s withdrawal:

“I accept his decision with sadness and regret. Tom made a mistake, which he has openly acknowledged. He has not excused it, nor do I. But that mistake, and this decision, cannot diminish the many contributions Tom has made to this country from his years in the military to his decades of public service.”

Matthew Cooper at TPM DC parses the fallout:

After Daschle, a few big questions:

1. How many more officials are going to run into the tax buzzsaw. Just spoke to someone who is applying for a senior job in the administration. “If you haven’t been preparing for public service your whole life, you’re really kind of screwed,” said the person. That may be a bit much, but it does raise the question of what tax indiscretion/error is now enough to derail your career in the Obama administration.

2. What’s Plan B for HHS and the health care campaign? Remember Daschle was not only supposed to run the largest cabinet agency but also to quarterback health care reform. Will the jobs now be bifurcated?

3. What’re the recriminations for Leo Hindery, the New York financier for whom Daschle worked? Did he do anything untoward or was this all Daschle’s failure to keep his accounting straight?

4. How badly is Obama tarnished by this both in terms of his competence — two cabinet nominees choke before they reach their confirmation hearings — and his promise of reform.

Pay special attention to No. 2.

When Daschle unveiled a multipronged attack on health care woes at a seminar put on by former Colorado Sen. Ken Salazar — who has since left the Senate to helm the Department of the Interior — he did so as Obama’s Health Policy Team leader because his HHS nomination hadn’t been officially announced yet. By all accounts, the two positions were inextricably linked, and Daschle — perhaps Obama’s key mentor when the young Illinois senator was first elected — was pegged as the public servant best equipped to pull off the job. (Perhaps, as Salon’s Glenn Greenwald pointed out to a fault, Daschle was too well equipped.)

While health care reform has taken a back seat to saving the economy, at least in the first couple of weeks of the administration, Daschle and Obama made no bones about the links between the two: “Providing quality affordable health care for all Americans is one of my top priorities for this country because our long-term fiscal prospects will have a hard time improving as long as sky-rocketing health care costs are holding us all down,” Obama said the same day Daschle spoke in Denver.

While he didn’t set a time line for the massive undertaking, Daschle made clear the administration intended to finish the job sooner rather than later. “Once we get started, it would be a big mistake to put it aside,” he said in Denver. “Once we get started, let’s finish it. Let’s get it done, let’s get it signed, let’s get it implemented.”

Any of those steps, at least for the moment, have been pushed back until Obama picks a replacement for his health reform czar.