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GOP senator: Tax errors shouldn't bar Sebelius

Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa tells reporters he feels Barack Obama's Health and Human Services nominee made "a good-faith effort" to pay her taxes correctly in the first place.
/ Source: The Associated Press

A $7,000 tax mistake shouldn't disqualify Health and Human Services nominee Kathleen Sebelius from serving as the nation's top health official, a key Republican senator said Wednesday.

Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa told home state reporters in a conference call that he felt Sebelius made "a good-faith effort" to pay her taxes correctly in the first place, and errors discovered in a recent review should not count against her.

Grassley, the senior Republican on the Finance Committee, said he is reserving judgment on Sebelius until confirmation hearings. But taxes won't be the deciding factor for him. The committee holds a hearing Thursday on Sebelius' nomination and must vote to send her nomination to the full Senate.

"I think we wouldn't be having this hearing if we didn't think the tax things were pretty well taken care of," said Grassley. He suggested he's more concerned with Sebelius' views on Medicare and Medicaid, and how her support for abortion rights might influence policies at the Health and Human Services Department.

Sebelius, now governor of Kansas, is expected to play a central role in trying to steer legislation through Congress this year that would overhaul the health care system to rein in costs and cover the uninsured. As a Democrat from a politically conservative state, she has a track record of working with Republicans.

But Sebelius recently corrected three years of tax returns and paid more than $7,000 in back taxes after finding "unintentional errors" — the latest tax troubles for an Obama administration nominee.

Sebelius said the changes involved charitable contributions, the sale of a home and business expenses. In a letter to senators Tuesday, she said she filed the amended returns as soon as the errors were discovered by an accountant she hired to scrub her taxes in preparation for her confirmation hearings.

Sebelius and her husband, Gary, a federal magistrate judge in Kansas, paid a total of $7,040 in back taxes and $878 in interest to amend returns from 2005-2007.

Several Obama administration nominees have run into tax troubles, notably the president's first pick for HHS secretary, former Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle. He withdrew from consideration while apologizing for failing to pay $140,000 in taxes and interest.

Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., issued a statement Tuesday supporting Sebelius.

"Congress is going to need a strong partner at the Department of Health and Human Services to achieve comprehensive health reform this year, and we have that partner in Gov. Sebelius," Baucus said. "There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that Gov. Sebelius has the political experience, determination, and bipartisan work ethic to get the job done with Congress this year. She's the right person for the job."