- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 3, 2009

As Democrats’ health care reform bill progresses through the Senate, former Majority Leader Tom Daschle has been making frequent trips back to his old Capitol Hill office, now occupied by his successor, Sen. Harry Reid.

The Democrat from South Dakota is what watchdog groups call a powerful source of influence on behalf of special interests with skin in the health care debate. And hes been wielding his power even though he’s neither a registered lobbyist nor a lawmaker.

In recent weeks, the senior policy adviser at DLA Piper, a Washington law firm that lists lobbying clients such as Sanofi Pasteur, which creates medical vaccines, has been in Capitol Hill strategy meetings with Mr. Reid, Nevada Democrat; Senate Democratic leaders; and White House aides. On Monday, he was the only person in one such meeting that wasn’t a member of the White House administration or the Senate.

“He may not be a registered lobbyist by the letter of the lobbying law but he’s certainly a very, very powerful influencer working on behalf of private special interests,” said Dave Levinthal, spokesman for the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington watchdog group that runs www.opensecrets.org.

“He’s somebody who has incredibly powerful and close ties with lawmakers and has been an extremely influential voice on the issue of health care,” Mr. Levinthal told The Washington Times on Tuesday. “That he’s participating in high-level meetings on this very issue as the Senate is debating in earnest the future of health care in America speaks to the issue of lobbyists, be them registered or not, having a great deal of say or a great deal of opportunity in influencing this debate.”

DLA Piper did not returned a request for comment. Mr. Daschle also has been a paid consultant to UnitedHealth Group, a health care services and insurance company, for providing “policy advice,” according to his financial disclosure filed early this year.

When Mr. Daschle joined the firm in November after a four-year stint at Alston & Bird, the group said he would “counsel clients on a wide range of regulatory and government affairs issues.”

Mr. Reid, when asked why Mr. Daschle has been involved in the discussions, told reporters Tuesday that he is “an expert in health care.”

“And, as you know, Senator Daschle was the lead person in the Senate for getting the Clinton health care bill through.”

Mr. Daschle also wrote a book, “Critical: What We Can Do About the Health Care Crisis,” outlining how he thinks the health system should be changed and what lessons he learned from the attempts in the early 1990s.

In January, President Obama nominated Mr. Daschle to be secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services and a leader in the health reform debate. But discoveries that he didn’t pay taxes on car services, consulting work and charitable donations clouded his nomination and led him to withdraw.

Mr. Daschle was the Democratic leader in the Senate from 1994 to 2004, serving as both minority and majority leader, until he lost his South Dakota seat to Sen. John Thune.

Jim McElhatton contributed to this report.