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Daschle Withdrawal Could Affect Health Debate

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block. Former Senator Tom Daschle withdrew today as President Obama's choice to steer the nation's health care policy. Daschle, named as secretary of Health and Human Services and White House health czar, stepped aside amid revelations of more than $140,000 in delinquent taxes and interest. It was a blow to the Obama administration. In an interview today with NBC, the president acknowledged there was enough blame to share.

President BARACK OBAMA: This was a mistake. I don't think it was intentional on his part, but it was a serious mistake. He owned up to it and ultimately made a decision that we couldn't afford the distraction. And I've got to own up to my mistake, which is that, you know, ultimately, it's important for this administration to send a message that there aren't two sets of rules - you know, one for prominent people and one for ordinary folks who have to pay their taxes.

BLOCK: In a bit, we'll hear from a Republican senator who pushed for Daschle to step down. First, NPR's Julie Rovner reports on the reaction across Capitol Hill.

JULIE ROVNER: It was grim-faced David Axelrod, President Obama's senior advisor, who emerged from a lunch with Democratic senators to face reporter's questions about Daschle's abrupt departure. Just last night, many of those same Democrats had vowed to see their former colleague confirmed, but Axelrod said Daschle didn't want them to have the fight for him.

Mr. DAVID AXELROD (President Obama's Senior Advisor): We've got enormously important business here in terms of our economic recovery package. Health care reform needs to move forward. And he simply didn't want to, as he said, be a distraction, and so he called this morning and informed us that he was going to withdraw his name.

ROVNER: Among those caught off guard was Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus. He's been counting on his former colleague to help push through a major overhaul of the nation's health care system. Last night, Baucus held a closed-door meeting where members grilled Daschle about his tax lapses, which included a failure to report use of a car and driver valued at more than $250,000. Baucus said he thought the meeting went well.

Mr. MAX BAUCUS (Senate Finance Committee Chairman): There were questions asked by Republican senators, but tone was collegial. It was - I mean, it was not, there was no - not acrimonious. There was no bitterness. There was no hostility. So based on that meeting, I'm a little surprised, frankly, at Senator Daschle's decision.

ROVNER: But others, like Vermont Democrat Patrick Leahy, praised Daschle for being selfless.

Senator PATRICK LEAHY (Democrat, Vermont): We know he would have been confirmed, and I think that he put the interests of the president ahead of his own. And he's admired for that.

ROVNER: Republicans, who had mostly held their fire while the controversy swirled around not only Daschle's taxes but the $5 million he'd earned since leaving the Senate, agreed that Daschle probably did the right thing in pulling out. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina warned that the confirmation hearings scheduled before the Finance Committee next week was likely to be a not-very-pretty affair.

Senator LINDSEY GRAHAM (Republican, South Carolina): Given for what was coming, it was probably a wise move for - clearly, he has the administration's best interests at heart, and I'm sure that's why he withdrew his name.

ROVNER: Now, having disposed of one controversy, the Obama administration faces a completely different but no less difficult problem: who will replace Daschle, not just as HHS secretary, but who will oversee the health reform push. The list of people with his unique qualifications and understanding of both the intricacies of health care and of Congress is a short one indeed, and the clock is already ticking. Julie Rovner, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.