Look who's at the health care negotiating table _ Tom Daschle.
The former Senate Democratic leader's nomination as health and human services secretary was derailed over a back taxes flap earlier this year. But that's not stopping Daschle, a close ally of President Barack Obama, from playing a significant role in Capitol Hill health care talks _ much as he'd be doing if he'd actually gotten the job.
The outsized role is unusual for someone who's an adviser to lobbying firms, especially given Obama's campaign vow to change business as usual in Washington.
Daschle was in a strategy meeting earlier this week with top Senate and White House officials, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., Obama's chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, and the actual HHS secretary, Kathleen Sebelius. Sebelius was Obama's second choice for the job after Daschle withdrew amid the tax controversy.
It was the second such high-level meeting Daschle attended in Reid's office in the past few weeks.
"He is an expert in health care," Reid told reporters Tuesday in explaining the arrangement. Reid spokesman Jim Manley said Daschle's role in working the Senate on the health care bill was Obama's idea, and that the president also dispatched two other former senators, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Vice President Joe Biden, to Capitol Hill.
The difference is that unlike the others, Daschle is no longer a government official, elected or appointed. He works for a prominent lobbying firm, DLA Piper, though he himself is not a registered lobbyist and has said he is more comfortable being described as a "resource" for former colleagues and others.
An aide at DLA Piper said Tuesday that Daschle was not available for an interview. Daschle joined the firm, which represents several health care-related clients, including vaccine maker Sanofi Pasteur, in mid-November. He previously worked at Alston & Bird, which represents numerous health care clients, including CVS Caremark Inc. and insurer Humana Inc.
Daschle's involvement in the health care talks might seem to present a conflict of interest problem for an administration that's vowed to keep lobbyists at arm's length. Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas criticized Daschle's role, saying Wednesday it "raises serious ethical concerns and sends a clear message to the American people that special interests, not their interests" are being represented in the development of the Senate's health overhaul bill.
White House spokesman Reid Cherlin declined to address that issue, saying only in a statement, "Tom Daschle is one of the country's foremost advocates for health reform, and his expertise in legislative strategy and long-standing friendships with senators from both parties put him in a unique position to help Senate leadership chart the course forward."
Daschle, who last year published a book on fixing the U.S. health care system titled, "Critical: What We Can Do About the Health-Care Crisis," originally was tapped by Obama to head a new White House Office of Health Reform as well as serve as HHS secretary. The job was split up and given to two people, Sebelius as HHS secretary and Nancy-Ann DeParle as director of the health reform office, after Daschle withdrew from consideration while apologizing for failing to pay $140,000 in taxes and interest.
In addition to attending strategy sessions on Capitol Hill, Daschle is reaching out individually to former colleagues, many of whom remain friends after his long career in the Senate. He represented South Dakota from 1987-2005 before losing his seat to Republican John Thune.
"Senator Daschle has enormous credibility and there are very few people who know the issue or the institution as well as he does," Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., said Tuesday.
Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, who's being courted by the White House as a possible Republican vote for the health care bill, said she'd spoken to Daschle recently. "Obviously they're recruiting everybody they can to be helpful and being conduits and voices for health care," said Snowe. Passage of the Senate's 10-year, nearly $1 trillion remake of the U.S. health care system is a top priority for Obama and Senate Democrats, who want all the help they can get.
Even so, not all of Daschle's former colleagues seemed clear on his involvement.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., a key architect of the legislation, was in the meeting with Daschle this week but said he had no idea who invited him or what his role was in working on the health care bill.
"Boy, I don't know," Baucus said.