Obama's Pick to Lead on Health Care Gets Hearing

Expensive, mediocre and too often unavailable. That about sums up the nation's health care system, former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, President-elect Barack Obama's choice to head health and human services, said Thursday.

Daschle kicked off what will be the first of many hearings for members of Obama's Cabinet. He did so in extremely friendly surroundings as one-time colleagues bathed him in praise and offered few tough questions for what will surely be a difficult and expensive task.

Daschle appeared before the Senate's Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, which is not the panel that will vote on confirmation. That's the Senate Finance Committee.

In his appearance, he noted that past efforts to overhaul the health care system have not fared well. He promised to learn from efforts in 1994 under former President Clinton that many said took too long, were too secretive and too hard to understand.

"These are good arguments for undertaking reform in a way that is aggressive, open and responsive to Americans' concerns," said Daschle, a Democrat who represented South Dakota in the Senate. "They are not good arguments for ignoring the problem."

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, the committee's chairman, began the hearing with the first of several warm welcomes for Daschle, who was one of the longest-serving Democratic leaders in the Senate's history and the only one to serve twice as both majority and minority leader.

"Reform is urgently needed and Tom Daschle is just the person for the job," said Kennedy, D-Mass.

In the coming months, Kennedy's committee is expected to help craft legislation designed to expand health insurance coverage. Lawmakers were eager to get Daschle's perspective.

Daschle has made it clear in the past year that he believes Congress needs to move fast on health legislation, and Kennedy has that same viewpoint, as his staff has spent recent months meeting with various trade and interest groups that have much at stake in the coming debates.

Drawing on lessons learned in the past, Obama handed Daschle two prime jobs. Besides picking him as health and human services secretary, Daschle also will serve as director of a new White House office on health reform.

In previous administrations, the White House and not the Cabinet agency has led attempts to expand coverage.

Most analysts expect Daschle will have little problem winning confirmation as HHS secretary.