- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 2, 2009

As Democrats’ health 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.

But Mr. Daschle, former South Dakota Democrat, is no longer a lawmaker. He’s what watchdog groups call a powerful source of influence on behalf of special interests.

In recent weeks, Mr. Daschle has been in Capitol Hill strategy meetings with Mr. Reid, 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 is not registered as a lobbyist, but he works as a senior policy advisor to DLA Piper, a Washington law firm that lists lobbying clients such as Sanofi Pasteur, which creates medical vaccines. Mr. Daschle has also been a paid consultant to UnitedHealth Group, a health care services and insurance company, for providing “policy advice,” according to his financial disclosure filed in early 2009.

Watchdog groups caution that even though someone isn’t a lawmaker or a lobbyist doesn’t mean they can’t influence policy.

“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 the site 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 has not returned a request for comment.

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 on 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 controversy over tax issues prompted the nomination to be withdrawn.

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.

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