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NBC: Daschle to be Obama's HHS secretary

The former Senate majority leader has been a close adviser to the president-elect throughout the campaign for the White House and recently wrote a book proposing health care improvements.
/ Source: NBC News and news services

Former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle has accepted President-elect Barack Obama's offer to be secretary of the Department Health and Human Services, NBC News confirmed Wednesday.

Democratic officials confirmed the acceptance.

The appointment has not been announced, but officials said the job is Daschle's barring an unforeseen problem as Obama's team reviews the background of the South Dakota Democrat. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to discuss the matter publicly.

Daschle is a close adviser to Obama throughout the former Illinois senator's White House campaign. He recently wrote a book on his proposals to improve health care, and he is working with former Senate leaders on recommendations to improve the system.

Organizations seeking to expand health coverage were quick to praise the selection.

"Sen. Daschle has a deep commitment to securing high-quality, affordable health care for everyone in our nation," said Ron Pollack, executive director of Families USA. "His new leadership position confirms that the incoming Obama administration has made health care reform a top and early priority for action in 2009."

Meanwhile, Democratic sources told NBC News that Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano is a leading candidate for secretary of homeland security and that Penny Pritzker, a Chicago businesswoman, is a leading candidate for commerce secretary.

Key post in Obama administration?
The head of the Department of Health and Human Services isn't at the same level of Cabinet prestige as the top spots at the State and Justice departments. But the health post could be more important in an Obama administration than in some others, making Daschle a key player in helping steer the president-elect's promised health care reforms.

The former South Dakota senator's return to the government will be a vindication of sorts. He was the Senate Democratic leader when he was defeated in 2004 by Republican John Thune, who persuaded voters back home that Daschle was more concerned with Washington than with them.

In fact, Daschle stayed in the capital city after his defeat, becoming a public policy adviser and member of the legislative and public policy group at the law and lobbying firm Alston & Bird. Daschle isn't registered as a lobbyist. He advises clients on such issues as health care, financial services, taxes and trade, according to the firm's Web site.

Health care interests, including CVS Caremark, the National Association for Home Care and Hospice, Abbott Laboratories and HealthSouth, are among the firm's lobbying clients.

Wife has lobbying interests
One area of review of his appointment will be the lobbying connections of his wife, Linda Hall Daschle, who has worked mostly on behalf of airline-related companies over the years.

NBC also confirmed Wednesday that she will leave her job in a lobbying firm, where she has specialized in aviation and defense issues. She will reportedly go on to start her own public policy firm, where she will not lobby.

Linda Hall Daschle was acting administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration in the Clinton administration and is one of Washington's top lobbyists. Her clients over the past year included American Airlines, Lockheed Martin and Boeing, Senate lobbying records show.

Tom Daschle, who will be 61 next month, was a close adviser to Obama throughout the former Illinois senator's White House campaign. He recently wrote a book on his proposals to improve health care: "Critical: What We Can Do About The Health-Care Crisis." He also has been working with former Senate leaders on recommendations to expand health coverage.

Republicans sniped at what they saw as an unwelcome trend.

"Barack Obama is filling his administration with longtime Washington insiders," said Alex Conant, spokesman for the Republican National Committee. "Since losing his Senate seat, Tom Daschle has worked for a major lobbying firm. For voters hoping to see new faces and fewer lobbyist connections in government, Daschle's nomination will be another disappointment."

Daschle will not only work on efforts to reduce the ranks of the uninsured, but he'll also be tasked with improving the nation's food and drug safety as well as overseeing safety net programs like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.

'Terrific choice'
Confirmation should be no problem.

"It's a terrific choice," said Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. "I am elated. As a former member he certainly knows the Congress, he knows the Senate, he is deeply committed to health care reform."

Daschle is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank run by top Obama transition adviser John Podesta, a former Clinton White House chief of staff. According to his center biography, Daschle serves on the advisory boards of Intermedia Partners and the BP America Inc. external advisory council, and on the boards of CB Richard Ellis, Mascoma Corp., Prime BioSolutions, The Freedom Forum, the Mayo Clinic, the Center for American Progress, the LBJ Foundation and the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs. He is also a member of the Council of Foreign Relations.

His son, Nathan, is the executive director of the Democratic Governors Association. His daughter, Kelly, is a senior producer for AP television news in Washington.

Daschle's strong Capitol Hill ties and knowledge of how the Health and Human Services Department works mean "it is a perfect appointment," said former Republican Rep. John Porter, who chairs the medical research advocacy group Research!America. "He'll do an outstanding job."

In his book, Daschle reviewed how he believed the health care reform effort failed during the Clinton administration — an effort that was led by Sen. Clinton, who was then first lady. He bemoaned the complexity of the legislation before Congress then and the time it took to put it together.

"Everybody was in favor of health care reform. But when it came down to the details, few groups were willing to tolerate provisions that might harm them, to swallow new regulations or to sacrifice some profits for the greater good," Daschle wrote. "Instead of seeing the broad picture, each stakeholder focused on its own narrow interests and dug in for battle. The result is that the great health care debate of the early 1990s expired with barely a whimper."

As secretary, he will also deal with the growing budgetary woes of some of the nation's most important health agencies.

One example: Years of funding that didn't keep up with inflation mean the National Institutes of Health has lost 14 percent of its buying power, said Dr. Harold Varmus, NIH's former director and now a science adviser to Obama's campaign. That has left promising disease research without money to move forward.

NBC's Andrea Mitchell and Michelle Perry contributed to this report.