Baucus weighs in on Daschle’s future

BAUCUS WEIGHS IN ON DASCHLE’S FUTURE…. When news of Tom Daschle’s tax troubles broke on Friday, several Democratic senators stepped up over the weekend to express their support for the former Senate Majority Leader. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) wasn’t one of them.

It wouldn’t ordinarily matter, but Baucus and Daschle have never gotten along particularly well. By some measures, they’ve had an ongoing “feud,” which started in part when Baucus opposed Daschle’s leadership campaign 15 years ago, and was made worse when Baucus went behind Daschle’s back to strike a deal to support Bush’s tax cuts eight years ago.

Now, however, Daschle’s HHS nomination is very much dependent on Baucus’ support. And while Baucus quickly came to Timothy Geithner’s defense over tax issues, over the weekend, Baucus didn’t say a word about Daschle’s controversy. (A Democratic staffer said, “The silence has been deafening.”)

Would Daschle’s old intra-party nemesis scuttle his cabinet nomination? Apparently not. This morning, Baucus praised Daschle as someone who would be an “invaluable” partner in the pursuit of healthcare reform. The committee chairman said in a statement:

“I have applauded Senator Daschle’s nomination to the post of H.H.S. Secretary, and my faith in his dedication and qualifications has only been bolstered in recent weeks by our numerous conversations about the pressing need for comprehensive health care reform. The ability to advance meaningful health reform is my top priority in confirming a Secretary of Health and Human Services, and I remain convinced that Senator Daschle would be an invaluable and expert partner in this effort. I am eager to move forward together.”

Around the same time, President Obama told reporters he “absolutely” stands by Daschle’s nomination, signaling that the White House has no intention of backing down. What’s more, Jeanne Lambrew, who will be Daschle’s deputy director at the newly-created White House Office of Health Reform, spoke at a health policy conference in D.C. this morning, and struck a very confident note. Daschle, Lambrew said, “will be secretary of Health and Human Services.”

Greg Sargent added, “It seems unlikely that Lambrew would go out there publicly and make such a declaration at this moment if she hadn’t received word that the Obama team’s support for Daschle is rock solid.”

Time will tell, but Daschle’s chances appear stronger now than they were this morning.

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