Politics

Reporter's Notebook: Clinton, Obama Both Suffered Through Cabinet Nominees' Tax Woes

WASHINGTON -- Ben Franklin said nothing was certain except death and taxes.

Were Franklin around today, he might have asserted that nothing is certain in recent Democratic presidential administrations except a few failed Cabinet nominees and their unpaid taxes.

Which is why Tom Daschle and Nancy Killefer now have been dumped into the tax bin of history along with one-time Clinton administration nominees Zoe Baird and Bobby Ray Inman.

Daschle, President Obama's pick for health and human services secretary, abruptly withdrew his name from consideration Tuesday after facing a hail of questions about why he failed to pay more than $130,000 in taxes. And Obama had tapped Killefer to be the government's first "chief performance officer" to oversee budget reform, but Killefer's failure to pay unemployment taxes for household workers tripped up her bid.

Last week, the Senate confirmed Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner despite failing to pay more than $40,000 in taxes and interest. That cost Geithner some usually-reliable Democratic votes, including Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa.

"How can Mr. Geithner speak with any credibility or authority?" Harkin wondered.

But a Democratic president has been down this road before.

In 1993, President Clinton nominated Aetna General Counsel Zoe Baird for attorney general. If confirmed, Baird would have been the first woman to hold that post. But then, reports surfaced that Baird failed to pay Social Security taxes for undocumented workers she hired as a nanny and driver.

The affair became known as "Nanny-gate." Baird soon paid $2,900 in fines and withdrew her nomination.

Focused on nominating a woman, Clinton followed by selecting U.S. District Judge Kimba Wood for the post. But a mere two weeks after Baird's nomination imploded, Wood dropped out, too. She also had employed an illegal immigrant as a nanny. Although Wood had paid the required taxes and hadn't broken any laws, the deja vu was too much and Wood abandoned her quest to be attorney general.

Clinton then nominated Janet Reno for attorney general and the Senate confirmed her.

In late 1993, Clinton selected former Adm. Bobby Ray Inman to succeed Les Aspin as defense secretary. But weeks later, Inman withdrew. Inman claimed Senate Republican leaders planned to "turn up the heat" on his nomination because he didn't pay Social Security taxes for a housekeeper.

Several other Clinton administration nominees also suffered from tax issues, yet survived: Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, the former Commerce Secretary Ron Brown and former Transportation Secretary Federico Pena.

Daschle's withdrawal of his bid for health and human services secretary triggered a seismic reaction on Capitol Hill on Tuesday. The news came as senators from both parties held their traditional Tuesday party caucus lunches in closed rooms just feet from the Senate floor. A wall of reporters usually camps in the Ohio Clock Corridor near the Senate chamber on Tuesdays. But journalists scrambled everywhere to buttonhole any senator coming or going from the meetings.

A scrum of at least 40 reporters descended on Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., the man charged with navigating Daschle's nomination through the rocky, Senate shoals.

"I think he would have been confirmed," said Baucus of his former party leader. "I'm surprised."

Even conservatives, like Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., seemed stunned that their former colleague withdrew.

"I think he (Mr. Obama) was willing to let it play out to see what happens," said DeMint.

After all, only once has the clubby Senate rejected one of their own for a cabinet post. In 1989, the Senate voted down Sen. John Tower, R-Tex., to be President George H.W. Bush's Defense Secretary for reasons ranging from ties to defense contractors to allegations of a drinking problem. Before the tax issue surfaced, Daschle was practically considered to be a shoo-in because of his deep Senate ties.

But two weeks to the day of his inauguration, Daschle's withdrawal triggered what quickly became the roughest day of President Obama's new administration.

And if history is a guide, things won't get any easier for Obama. Clinton observed how events can quickly pirate a narrative a president is trying to pitch to the press.

On January 21, 1998, President Clinton was scheduled for three, long-form interviews, with Roll Call, National Public Radio and The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. But that morning, the Washington Post broke the Monica Lewinsky story. And Clinton had to face the music that afternoon with the media.

Daschle's withdrawal is not anywhere near the same league as the Lewinsky scandal. But like his Democratic predecessor 11 years ago, Obama also had to answer questions from the press. In an eerily similar scenario, the president was pre-scheduled Tuesday for long-form interviews with FOX, ABC, NBC, CBS and CNN to advocate his stimulus package.

Of course, many of the questions focused on Daschle's taxes and his failed nomination.

As Lord Byron wrote, "History, with all her volumes vast, hath but one page."

Chad Pergram covers Congress for FOX News. He's won an Edward R. Murrow Award and the Joan Barone Award for his reporting on Capitol Hill.