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Daschle Offers His Mea Culpa

Former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) huddled with members of the Senate Finance Committee on Monday evening to discuss whether his nomination to lead the Department of Health and Human Services would survive the tax payment controversy that broke over the weekend.

Senate Democrats emerged from the closed-door meeting unified in their support for their former colleague.

“Sen. Daschle made mistakes on his taxes, but it was clear they were not intentional,” said Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.), who convened the meeting.

Baucus maintained that Daschle “remains imminently qualified to serve as secretary of Health and Human Services.”

Daschle — appearing deeply moved by the episode — apologized for his mistake but maintained the misstep was unintentional.

“I would hope that my mistake be viewed in the context of 30 years of public service,” the former Majority Leader said during his brief remarks.

Other Democratic Senators emerged from the meeting to voice support for Daschle. Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) said he would support the nomination “with great vigor.”

Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) said Members would rally around the nominee “not because he was a Senator, [but] because of the kind of person he is.”

While the meeting was bipartisan and attended by committee ranking member Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), none offered comment following the meeting.

Baucus did not say when the committee would hold its formal confirmation hearing, although under committee rules the earliest he could convene the panel would be one week from today.

A draft report obtained by the Washington Post revealed that Daschle owed more than $100,000 in back taxes for a number of reasons, including a luxury car service he used for several years.

Democrats including Majority Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.), Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (Vt.) and Kerry quickly came to his defense, saying Daschle had been forthcoming in disclosing the issue and had apologized.

Many Democrats were privately taken aback by the fact that Baucus did not reiterate his support for Daschle until Monday morning.

Although Baucus did eventually issue a statement of support, the episode was reminiscent for many Democrats of the uncomfortable relationship between Baucus and Daschle during Daschle’s time as the leader of the chamber’s Democrats.

Baucus on Monday night downplayed the importance of the tax controversy and said he expects Daschle to easily pass the committee with strong Republican support. “I think it will be considerable,” Baucus said when asked to gauge Republican support for Daschle on the committee.

Democratic leadership aides also rejected the idea that lingering friction between Daschle and Baucus influenced how the committee has handled the nomination.

One senior leadership aide pointed out that “Baucus’ plate has been full” with work on the children’s health bill that passed the Senate last week, the upcoming economic stimulus debate and the nomination of Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner. As a result, Daschle’s nomination has been pushed to the background, this source said.

It appears at this point that Daschle’s tax problems will not have a major impact on his nomination. Prior to Monday’s meeting with Daschle, Finance Committee member Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) said he still supported the nomination and noted that the Senate would not have known about the tax issues involving the car service if Daschle had not first come forward to discuss them.

“The only reason we know about it is because he was honest about it,” Conrad said.

GOP aides said Monday how the Conference ultimately handles the question of Daschle’s late taxes will likely be determined by how he handles the controversy. One senior GOP aide noted that when it was discovered that Geithner failed to pay taxes on a domestic employee, many Republicans were unconvinced by his explanation of the situation as well as the sincerity of his apologies.

In the case of Attorney General Eric Holder — who was confirmed by the Senate on Monday — Republicans initially had questions about his role in a number of controversial Clinton-era pardons and worried that his actions indicated he would not be independent enough from the Obama White House.

But in private conversations with several lawmakers, as well as during his testimony before the Judiciary Committee, Holder acquitted himself well, saying he had made errors in judgment and that he had learned valuable lessons from those mistakes.

If Daschle conducts himself like Holder, Republicans said, he is unlikely to see significant opposition from the GOP.

“He’s getting the same treatment as Geithner before the hearing. If he does well at his hearing and doesn’t appear to be less than forthright — we didn’t feel Geithner was totally above board — then he could get some GOP votes for confirmation. A lot hinges on the hearing,” the senior GOP aide said.

But even if his support among Republicans is hurt by the tax scandal, they have acknowledged that Daschle is still likely to be confirmed.

Senators are loath to vote against one of their own — even a figure like Daschle who was demonized by Republicans during his tenure as the leader of the Senate Democrats.

Short of a major breakdown in his relations with his former colleagues or additional revelations about improprieties, he should receive enough GOP support to pass the Senate.

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