WASHINGTON — Former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, President-elect Barack Obama's choice to lead a major health reform effort, cruised through his first confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill on Thursday, suggesting an early bipartisan willingness to tackle the difficult issue.
Daschle, whom Obama has nominated to head the Department of Heath and Human Services, assured members of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions that the new administration would cooperate with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.
"I really want to work in a collaborative way," Daschle said. "It's the only way we're going to get this done."
Daschle faces a second hearing later this month before the Senate Finance Committee, which will vote before the nomination goes, as expected, before the full Senate.
Obama and Daschle have said they want to reshape the healthcare system to control skyrocketing costs and extend coverage to 46 million people now without insurance.
Daschle called healthcare reform "one of the greatest challenges of our time," in words echoed by committee Democrats and Republicans, including Chairman Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), who presided over the hearing after returning from treatment for a malignant brain tumor.
Previous reform efforts -- most recently under President Clinton in the early 1990s -- collapsed over how to insure millions more people and how to pay for it.
But lawmakers conspicuously steered clear of contentious issues that are expected to loom large when the debate over specific legislation begins.
"It's going to be a tough job, but you can do it well," Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) told Daschle. "And I intend to support you."
Wyoming Sen. Michael B. Enzi, the ranking Republican on the committee, hinted at GOP concern that the minority would be sidelined; Democrats are going to control the White House and Congress for the first time in 14 years.
Daschle, in his 2008 book about healthcare reform and past efforts, endorsed the use of parliamentary tactics to stop a minority of senators from holding up sweeping healthcare legislation.
On Thursday, the South Dakota Democrat assured Enzi that as HHS secretary, he would not encourage such a hard-nosed approach.
There were indications of other challenges ahead. Daschle acknowledged that the new administration faces a big one in reinvigorating agencies such as the Food and Drug Administration that critics say were overly politicized under the Bush administration.
"I want to take ideology and politics, as much as humanly possible, out of the process and leave the scientists to do their job," Daschle said. Obama has yet to announce his selection to head the FDA.
On the other side of the Capitol on Thursday, Obama's choice to be the next U.S. surgeon general ran into opposition from House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), who questioned Dr. Sanjay Gupta's qualifications for the job and urged his colleagues to sign a letter to Obama opposing Gupta's nomination.
Gupta, 39, a neurosurgeon and TV journalist on CNN and CBS, has never served in the public health sector.
Gupta's criticism of single-payer healthcare systems like Canada's has also angered many proponents of creating such a system in this country. Conyers is a leading champion of the single-payer model.
The Obama transition team declined to comment on Conyers' letter.