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HEALTH CARE REPORT: Daschle wait game

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Daschle wait game

The confirmation of Tom Daschle, Mr. Obama's pick to head the Health and Human Services Department, was supposed to sail through the Senate without trouble - and it still might. But the process is taking longer than many expected, as the Senate Finance Committee has yet to schedule a hearing for the former Senate majority leader.

The affable Democrat from South Dakota , who is well-liked and respected by most Republicans, received a warm, bipartisan welcome during an appearance before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee in early January. But the Finance Committee, which has the final say on whether to send Mr. Daschle's nomination to the Senate floor for a vote, is still vetting him and other Obama Cabinet designates, said Carol Guthrie, a spokeswoman for committee Chairman Max Baucus, Montana Democrat.

Ms. Guthrie added that a "full plate" of committee business is also causing a scheduling delay.

The committee did find time to hold a confirmation hearing last week for Treasury Secretary-designate Timothy Geithner, however, whose nomination was scheduled for a full Senate vote Monday evening. And the Senate already has voted to approve 11 Obama Cabinet picks.

Republicans also have criticized Mr. Daschle for his role at District-based Alston & Bird, a powerful firm that has done lobbying on behalf of health and hospital associations. Mr. Daschle is not a federally registered lobbyist but has been a special public-policy adviser for the firm.

Some Republicans say Mr. Daschle's relationship with Alston & Bird skirts the spirit of Mr. Obama's promise not to include lobbyists in his Cabinet.

Reports also have circulated that some Republicans on the committee are concerned about Mr. Daschle's relationship with EduCap Inc. The Wall Street Journal reported that Mr. Daschle took several trips on the group's corporate jet, including to vacation destinations.

Democrats may be spending extra time vetting Mr. Daschle in the hope of avoiding an embarrassing scenario for the Obama administration similar to Mr. Geithner's nomination after news leaked several weeks ago that he had failed to pay some federal taxes.

Still, the former senator's nomination is expected to be approved.

"Tom Daschle is an incredible public servant and ... there is no one better qualified to shepherd through [Mr. Obama's] ambitious plans for health care reform," Finance Committee member Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV, West Virginia Democrat, said last month.

Family planning critics

As the House prepares to debate and vote on the Democrats' $825 billion economic-stimulus bill Wednesday, Republicans increasingly are grumbling over a provision that would expand Medicaid and allow its use for family planning services.

The measure calls for repealing a requirement that states that wish to use Medicaid money for family planning services, including birth control, must get a Health and Human Services waiver. More than half the states currently have such permission.

"How can you spend hundreds of millions of dollars on contraceptives - how does that stimulate the economy?" said House Minority Leader John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, after a White House meeting Friday.

But Democratic leaders say the change would save the federal government significant amounts of cash because birth control is much less expensive than having a child. An analysis of the bill by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office said expanding family planning services as called for in the bill could save the federal government $160 million over a decade.

Child health care pushed

The Senate is expected to pass legislation this week to expand a popular health care program for uninsured children, giving President Obama a high-profile down payment on his promise of universal health care coverage.

Democrats had hoped to send the measure to the president's desk already, but work on the economic stimulus package, Cabinet appointments and Republican opposition to some components of the bill delayed a full Senate vote for several days.

The Democrat-crafted $31.5 billion proposal to expand the State Children's Heath Insurance Program, or SCHIP, would add about 4 million children to the 7 million already covered in the program. The measure would extend funding to the program - set to expire at the end of March - for another 4 1/2 years.

The House passed a similar bill earlier this month, and Mr. Obama has said he will sign the measure. Both versions would be paid for with a 61-cent tax on a pack of cigarettes.

Attempts in 2007 to expand SCHIP received considerable support from Republicans in both Houses. But minority party members are upset that the latest version calls for loosening citizenship and eligibility documentation requirements, which they say could lead to illegal immigrants gaining access to the program.

Some Republicans also aren't happy the measure would remove a five-year waiting period to enter the program for new, legal immigrants.

But with Democrats holding a 57-41 voting edge in the Senate, the measure is expected to pass despite Republican concerns.

Sean Lengell can be reached at slengell@washingtontimes.com.