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White House Calls Daschle Tax Issue 'Serious'

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block. Former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle is trying to save his nomination to become President Obama's Secretary of Health and Human Services. Today he met behind closed doors with his former colleagues on the Senate Finance Committee to explain why he had to pay more than $140,000 in back taxes and interest for the past three years. Then he came out to the microphones to apologize.

Mr. TOM DASCHLE (Nominee, Secretary of Health and Human Services): My failure to recognize that the use of a car was income and not a gift from a good friend was a mistake. When I realized the mistake, I notified officials and I paid the tax in full. It was completely inadvertent. But that's no excuse, and I deeply apologize.

BLOCK: NPR's Julie Rovner is just back from Capitol Hill, and she joins us now. Julie, what's the status of Tom Daschle's nomination?

JULIE ROVNER: Well, it's interesting. After the closed door meeting, basically, all the committee's Democrats came out to declare their complete support for Daschle's nomination. Saying, as he did, that the mistakes were inadvertent, that all the money owed has been paid back, and that when measured against Daschle's 30 years in public service, this should not be seen in any way as disqualifying. The committee Republican's, however, almost to a person refused to comment, so we don't even know what they're thinking at this point.

BLOCK: Let's back up here a little bit here, Julie. Why don't you lay out for us exactly what Tom Daschle's tax problems are.

ROVNER: Well, there are three, according to the Finance Committee. First of the $275,000 that Daschle and his wife gave to charity over the past three years, they didn't have proper documentation for about $15,000 worth. So they had to take back those deductions and pay taxes and interest. Then there was a clerical error by one of Daschle's consulting clients who failed to send him the proper amount on a year-end tax notice. That resulted in his having to pay $32,000 in back taxes and interest.

But the biggest issue in the lion's share of the $140,000 was the car and driver Daschle got from that consulting client. That was around $102,000 in back taxes and interest.

BLOCK: And it's not just these tax issues that are raising eyebrows here.

ROVNER: No, though it's a lot of money, there's also the issue of just how much money Daschle's been making - something in the neighborhood of $5 million since he left the Senate after 2004, including more than $200,000 from health interest groups that he'll be regulating as Secretary of Health and Human Services.

Now, since he wasn't a registered lobbyist, he just provided what's known in Washington as strategic advice, so he's not covered under the new administration's lobbying band, but there's a lot of Democrats around town who agree, it just doesn't look good.

BLOCK: Doesn't look good, and a lot of tough questions. Does this put Tom Daschle's nomination in peril?

ROVNER: I really can't imagine that it won't go through. First of all, there's enough Democrats alone to confirm him, and frankly, he's a still a member of the Senate club. And I think it takes a lot more than this for them to turn on one of their own. Back at the White House, he's one of President Obama's earliest and closest advisors, and the West Wing is full of people who are former Daschle aides.

They've now scheduled his confirmation hearing at the Finance Committee for next Tuesday, think there's going to be a lot of pointed questions both from Republicans and some Democrats. So this is not making anyone very happy, it's certainly providing some juicy talking points for Republicans talking about limousine liberals who don't even pay taxes on their limousines. But I think, in the end, this nomination will happen. And some months from now I think people will have pretty much forgotten all of this.

BLOCK: Okay, NPR's Julie Rovner, thanks so much.

ROVNER: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

As special correspondent and guest host of NPR's news programs, Melissa Block brings her signature combination of warmth and incisive reporting. Her work over the decades has earned her journalism's highest honors, and has made her one of NPR's most familiar and beloved voices.