Senate Republicans piled on Health and Human Services Secretary-designate Tom Daschle for failing to pay more than $128,000 in taxes, though they stopped short of saying they would reject the South Dakota Democrat’s confirmation.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, said Mr. Daschle’s tax woes, as well as those of new Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, do “raise some questions about the [Obama administration’s] vetting process.”
“It is quite a surprise,” said Mr. McConnell on CBS’ “Face the Nation.” “This is now the second time that we’ve had a similar incident.”
The minority leader added that he will wait until after a Monday meeting of the Senate Finance Committee, which has final say on submitting Mr. Daschle’s confirmation to the Senate for a full vote, before deciding whether he will support the nominee.
Senate Democrats on Sunday’s talk shows sounded a similar note, agreeing that their former leader had made mistakes, but they also said Mr. Daschle is the right man to be HHS secretary and lead the Obama administration’s health care reform efforts.
“Mistakes were made, [but] the taxes are going to be paid,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat, on CNN’s “State of The Union.” “It should not destroy the worth of this man for the American people.”
“What’s important to me in this nominee is that he knows how to do it,” Mrs. Feinstein said. “He’s had the experience with [Capitol] Hill to know the difficulties of moving the [health reform] program.”
Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat, while appearing on “Fox News Sunday,” said Mr. Daschle is in the process of paying his back taxes and called him “one of the most honest people I’ve ever known or worked with in public life.”
But while Republicans weren’t ready to declare war on the Daschle pick, they noted the irony of Democrats downplaying the latest in a series of Obama nominees not measuring up to the candidate’s and the party’s rhetoric on ethics.
“President Obama wanted to have a very ethical administration starting out and so on, but I think he’s seeing how hard it is to avoid these kind of problems,” said Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl, Arizona Republican, also on Fox.
Mr. Kyl, a Senate Finance Committee member, said it’s too early to tell the fate of Mr. Daschle, a former Senate majority and minority leader.
“We’ll have to question former Senator Daschle and understand his explanation, and then have a conversation about it and see where it goes,” he said.
Sen. John Ensign, Nevada Republican, said on CNN that Mr. Obama has failed so far on his promise to bring change to Washington and to end its “in-breeding culture.”
“If we want the American people to trust us in Washington, D.C., we have to do things in a different way,” said Mr. Ensign, also a Finance Committee member. “I think that the president is sincere in his desire to do things in a different way, and unfortunately [with] some of his nominees … there is a problem here.”
Sen. Jim DeMint, South Carolina Republican, a staunch conservative who rarely holds back criticism of Democrats, called Mr. Daschle’s tax woes “disheartening.”
“I can see now why liberals don’t mind if the tax rate goes up, because they’re not going to pay it anyway,” he said on ABC’s “This Week.”
But like his GOP colleagues, Mr. DeMint added that he will reserve judgment for the time being on Mr. Daschle’s confirmation.
Mr. Daschle recently filed amended tax returns to report $128,203 in back taxes and $11,964 in interest. The amended returns reflect additional income for consulting work, the use of a car-and-driver service, and reduced deductions for charitable contributions.
The administration faced another Cabinet nomination embarrassment when Mr. Geithner’s confirmation was delayed after it was revealed he had failed to pay more than $34,000 in taxes.
Mr. Obama’s first choice for commerce secretary, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, withdrew from consideration because of a grand jury investigation over how state contracts were issued to political donors.