Tom Daschle was meeting with members of the Senate Finance Committee Monday to apologize for his tax problems, and Democrats were confident that he’d emerge from the session headed for confirmation as President Barack Obama’s secretary of health and human services.
"Tom Daschle is going to be just fine," Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) told reporters gathered outside the meeting.
“This nomination is going through, no question about it,” said a Democratic senator who serves on Finance. “We’ll meet with Tom and talk this all through, but I take his word for what happened.”
The senator – who spoke on the condition of anonymity – said Daschle helped his cause by issuing a public apology Monday morning. And the senator noted that Democrats have a three-seat majority on the Finance panel, meaning they can win any committee fight with the GOP.
As of press time, no Republican on the panel had voiced outright opposition to Daschle’s confirmation. Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) met separately with Daschle before the Finance Committee meeting but declined to say where he stood.
“I haven’t even expressed any concerns, so don’t assume anything with respect to my positions,” Kyl told Politico. “Right now, I’m not going to talk about it.”
Several Democrats on the panel, including Sens. Charles Schumer (N.Y.) and John Kerry (Mass.), have already publicly declared their continued support for Daschle’s nomination.
Daschle was expected to address reporters after his meeting with the Finance Committee ended.
The former Senate majority leader seemed a lock for confirmation when Obama picked him for the HHS job in December. But Daschle’s chances took a blow when news broke Friday that he’d paid more than $140,000 in back taxes and interest, mainly stemming from a private car service provided to him by a major Democratic donor for three years after he left the Senate.
Republicans seized on the report, noting that Daschle was the second Obama Cabinet nominee – Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner was the first – to have tax problems.
But Obama said Monday that he was “absolutely” still committed to Daschle’s nomination, and White House spokesman Robert Gibbs echoed the point during his press briefing.
"Nobody's perfect. It was a serious mistake, one that he caught and remedied," Gibbs said. "We still think he's the best person to do health care reform and shepherd a very complicated process through Congress to achieve savings and cut costs for the American people."
Daschle, meanwhile, apologized for the tax problems in a letter to Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and the committee’s ranking Republican, Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa).
“As you can well imagine, I am deeply embarrassed and disappointed by the errors that required me to amend my tax returns,” Daschle wrote. “I apologize for the errors and profoundly regret that you have had to devote time to them.”
Baucus, who had rushed to Geithner’s defense when his tax problems came to light, had been silent about Daschle’s problems. But in the wake of a Politico story noting the silence – and a long-running feud between the two men – Baucus issued a statement of support Monday morning.
“I have applauded Sen. Daschle's nomination to the post of HHS secretary, and my faith in his dedication and qualifications has only been bolstered in recent weeks by our numerous conversations about the pressing need for comprehensive health care reform," Baucus said. "The ability to advance meaningful health reform is my top priority in confirming a secretary of health and human services, and I remain convinced that Sen. Daschle would be an invaluable and exprt partner in this effort. I am eager to move forward together.”
Senate GOP leaders and rank-and-file members have been cautious in commenting on the Daschle flap so far. While Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) raised questions about the Obama team’s vetting process Sunday, he told reporters Monday that he wasn’t going to discuss the matter further.
GOP aides said that Republicans were waiting to see if any Democrats were going to break with Obama over Daschle’s nomination -- or if further negative news surfaces on the former majority leader -- before deciding what to do.
“Daschle has a lot of friends on this side of the aisle,” said a senior GOP aide, referring to Daschle’s 18 years of Senate service. “There are reservoirs of good will for him. So we are just seeing how this shakes out.”
Manu Raju contributed to this report.