Daschle folds on likely winning hand

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Former Sen. Tom Daschle made the decision to withdraw from consideration as the nation’s top health regulator Tuesday despite little Capitol Hill opposition and the good will he built after years of sending campaign cash to some of the same senators who were poised to vote on his nomination.

Despite his ouster from the Senate in 2004, Mr. Daschle has continued to tap his political action committee, New Leadership for America, to spread nearly a quarter-million dollars in campaign donations to his friends in Congress and their causes.

Campaign-watchdog groups — and Barack Obama on the presidential campaign trail — have long railed against such “revolving door” practices between government and special interests.

The donations included more than $100,000 from as far back as 2005 to senators who would have voted on Mr. Daschle’s confirmation as secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, according to an analysis of federal campaign filings. A total of $38,500 was given to federal candidates during the 2007-08 election cycle.

Mr. Daschle’s PAC has doled out more than $250,000 to federal candidates for House and Senate races, including $15,000 to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, since he left office, according to Federal Election Commission filings.

He abruptly withdrew from a confirmation process that once was deemed certain to succeed as questions mounted about his failure to pay more than $128,000 in taxes and his use of a limousine and driver given by Democratic donor Leo Hindery.

Mr. Daschle is hardly the only former member of Congress to use his political action committee to give campaign money to former colleagues. Democrats and Republicans alike, including several who are now registered lobbyists, have continued redirecting their campaign cash to former colleagues years after leaving office.

“I suspect that he always knew he was going to come back to public life, so doling out campaign contributions can help strengthen his position,” said Craig Holman, legislative representative for the nonpartisan watchdog group Common Cause.

“The most important reason this practice should not exist is that money should never be equated with influence peddling, but another is that the people who made a contribution to him probably never intended it to be used to help bolster his income or position.”

Meredith McGehee, policy director at the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center, which studies campaign finance and ethics issues, called leadership PACs “political slush funds.”

“Daschle’s a well-respected, well-liked guy who wanted to continue to be a political operator in this town, and he’s been able to use these funds to build good will.”

Unlike other lobbyists and K Street consultants, former members of Congress don’t have to pay taxes on the money they donate from their political action committees. That’s because the FEC says it’s legal for retired members of Congress to dispose of campaign funds by giving to other federal candidates. Another option, however, is to donate the money to charity.

Cappy McGarr, treasurer of Mr. Daschle’s PAC, referred questions Tuesday to a Daschle associate, who did not return a phone message.

Mr. Daschle isn’t registered to lobby, but he has advised clients of one of the most prominent lobbying firms in Washington, Alston & Bird LLP. He also has had a lucrative career after being voted out of the Senate. According to a financial disclosure report, he made more than $2.1 million at Alston & Bird and nearly as much from a consulting job at InterMedia Advisors LLC.

The Senate also was investigating gifts and travel, including reported charter jet trips, to Mr. Daschle from EduCap, a nonprofit student-lending company that itself has been under Senate investigation.

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