Reports earlier Monday that U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., was “slow-rolling” the nomination of former South Dakota Sen. Tom Daschle for secretary of Health and Human Services secretary seem to have prompted Baucus to issue a statement endorsing Daschle for the HHS cabinet spot, despite recent news that he failed to pay taxes for the use of a car and driver.
The New York Times reported this afternoon that Baucus said he supported Daschle in a statement quoted as saying: “The ability to advance meaningful health reform is my top priority in confirming a secretary of health and human services, and I remain convinced that Senator Daschle would be an invaluable and expert partner in this effort,” Mr. Baucus said. “I am eager to move forward together.”
But earlier today POLITICO delved deeply into why Baucus, chair of the Senate Finance Committee, was quick to issue a statement of support for Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, whose nominating process also became mired in tax troubles, but remained mum when lesser problems popped up for Daschle:
Top Democrats had been complaining privately that Baucus was letting Daschle “get beat up” by the GOP by stalling the vetting process.
“[Baucus] is flyspecking Daschle, really dragging this out,” said a Democratic senator close to Daschle. “He has shown himself to be as unreliable as ever.”
The story then delves into a deep and long-running feud between Daschle and Baucus, the origins of which is generating quite a bit of speculation as to its breadth and severity:
The exact origins of the feud between Baucus and Daschle are unclear, but the existence of it is so well known within Democratic circles that Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) referred to it in his book, “The Good Fight,” released last year.
“Baucus was the only Westerner to vote against Daschle in his race for Democratic leader in 1994, which Daschle had only won by a single vote, and they had been driven farther apart on the issue of taxes,” Reid wrote. “By the end, they really couldn’t stand each other and had had several extremely testy exchanges on the [Senate] floor and in private as a result.”
Baucus and Daschle have clashed over taxes, trade and former President George W. Bush’s Medicare prescription drug program, which Baucus supported. Daschle kept Baucus off a House-Senate conference on the 2002 farm bill, which infuriated Baucus.
Baucus privately accused Daschle of trying to overrule committee chairmen and being a weak leader, while Daschle and other top Democrats believed that Baucus was willing to sell out the party to advance his own agenda. Senior Democratic aides said Baucus “was ecstatic” when Reid took over as Democratic leader following Daschle’s defeat in 2004 by Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.)
“It’s never gotten any better from Baucus’ side,” said a Democratic insider who knows both men well. “Daschle thought Baucus was untrustworthy, while Baucus thought Daschle was indecisive. They really hate each other.”
Baucus’ office did not return calls or e-mails seeking comment on his relationship with Daschle.
Baucus did release a statement praising Daschle when Obama first announced his nomination for HHS, and Democrats say they’re certain that he won’t try to kill the nomination because the stakes are too high.
“Baucus wants something from Daschle, and he’ll never have more leverage than he has right now, before the nomination is voted on,” said a senior Democratic aide. “He’ll get his pound of flesh from Daschle, and he’ll get a commitment on something else from Obama.”
Democrats also note that the White House has another back channel to Baucus. Jim Messina left his post as Baucus’ chief of staff to become a senior White House aide. That gives Obama a direct link to Baucus, although the president, of course, served with Baucus himself.