Tom Daschle speaks at the Democratic National Convention in Denver in August. (Ron Edmonds / Associated…)
WASHINGTON — Signaling his commitment to take on the thorny challenge of refashioning American healthcare, President-elect Barack Obama has asked former Sen. Tom Daschle to be secretary of Health and Human Services, placing a political ally with vast Capitol Hill experience at the forefront of the debate.
Expanding access to health insurance, and mandating that all children be covered, were among Obama's signature campaign promises. Like Obama, Daschle has long said the federal government should play a more aggressive role in extending health insurance to more Americans and improving the quality of care.
Obama's selection of a high-profile figure with tested legislative skills -- Daschle served 10 years as Democratic leader in the Senate -- was viewed as a sign that the new president expects to move aggressively rather than incrementally on a healthcare agenda that could require delicate political maneuvering.
"You wouldn't appoint Tom Daschle to be secretary of Health and Human Services if you weren't serious about making healthcare reform a priority," said Drew E. Altman, president of the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation.
Daschle's appointment drew praise from several key interest groups expected to be involved in the healthcare debate, among them insurers, doctors and lawmakers.
His legislative experience is expected to be especially valuable. Healthcare is an explosive issue that prompted a deadlock in Congress the last time major adjustments to the system were proposed, during President Clinton's first term.
"He certainly knows the corridors" of Congress, Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) said.
Daschle represented South Dakota in the House and Senate for 26 years, including his tenure as Senate Democratic leader. He is close to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), who is helping lead Senate efforts to craft healthcare legislation. Daschle has also served on the governing board of the Mayo Clinic, one of the nation's premier medical centers.
The South Dakota native is also an emblem of how Obama is surrounding himself with old hands from the Democratic establishment even as he promises to introduce a new political style of operation in Washington -- something that has drawn increasing criticism from Republicans.
"Barack Obama is filling his administration with longtime Washington insiders," said Alex Conant, spokesman for the Republican National Committee. "For voters hoping to see new faces and fewer lobbyist connections in government, Daschle's nomination will be another disappointment."
Daschle's wife, Linda, is a registered lobbyist with a long list of corporate clients that may present potential conflicts of interest, and Daschle raised concerns about subjecting her business to confirmation-fight partisanship, according to a Democrat close to the process.
The selection of Daschle was not formally announced by the Obama transition team, but several Democratic officials close to the process confirmed Wednesday that he had been offered the job and had accepted it.
Daschle carries deep scars from the partisan battles that Obama has campaigned against. He lost his Senate seat in 2004 after Republicans launched a national campaign to defeat him. He was the Senate majority leader, and his critics portrayed him as a relentless obstacle to President Bush's agenda.
Daschle toyed with the idea of running for president in 2008 but opted to support Obama, endorsing him early over other former Senate colleagues running for president, including Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.).
Fifteen years ago, Daschle played a central role in pushing the Clintons' unsuccessful healthcare reform effort on Capitol Hill.
Today, he remains a vocal champion for bringing the roughly 46 million uninsured people in the U.S. into the healthcare system -- though, like most advocates of overhauling healthcare delivery, he no longer calls for the creation a single-payer system like the one promoted by the Clinton administration.
Daschle has proposed giving all Americans access to the current healthcare system for federal employees, which relies on private insurers. Obama made a similar proposal on the campaign trail.
In his recent book "Critical: What We Can Do About the Health-Care Crisis," Daschle called for the creation of a "federal health board" to recommend what drugs and treatments health insurers should cover, based on evidence of their effectiveness.
Daschle's prescriptions for the healthcare system are generally similar to a reform outline unveiled last week by Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.), who is talking with Kennedy's staff and representatives from the Obama transition team about writing legislation.
Most importantly, Daschle and Baucus both want to keep the existing system of employer-based coverage intact and layer over it a new system that would include people who are not insured.