Obama names Daschle as health secretary

Former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, left, smiles on Capitol Hill in Washington. Democratic officials say Daschle has accepted President-elect Barack Obama's offer to be Secretary of Health and Human Services. <BR><I>AP file photo

WASHINGTON - Barack Obama is enlisting former Senate leader Tom Daschle as his health secretary, embracing a third Washington insider in the early stages of Cabinet-building by the president-elect who promised change. Hillary Rodham Clinton, the capital's most famous woman for two decades, seemed ever more likely to be his secretary of state.

Keeping the seating charts straight is Rahm Emanuel, Obama's chief of staff and another veteran of the Clinton White House.

It's still early in the building of an administration by the candidate who built his campaign on promises of change. But so far fresh faces have been few.

Daschle's selection to head the Department of Health and Human Services - confirmed Wednesday but not yet announced - 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 issues including 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.

Daschle's appointment was not formally announced, but Democratic officials said the job was his barring an unforeseen problem as Obama's team reviews his background. One area of review will include the lobbying connections of his wife, Linda Hall Daschle, who has worked mostly on behalf of airline-related companies over the years. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to discuss the matter publicly.

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. Daschle's lobbying firm said Wednesday that she would be leaving the group at the end of the year.

Tom Daschle, who will be 61 next month, was a close adviser to Obama throughout the former Illinois senator's White House campaign. He also has been working with former Senate leaders on recommendations to expand health coverage.

An array of consumer groups quickly lined up in support of Daschle as secretary of a department that oversees nearly a quarter of all federal spending.

"Someone with his stature and clout, combined with his passion and expertise in health care, is an exciting choice," said DeAnn Friedholm, Consumers Union's campaign director for health care reform.

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.

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