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What is the Future of Healthcare Reform Following Daschle Withdrawing Health Sec. Nomination?

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In what is being described as the first major setback of Barack Obama’s presidency, Tom Daschle has withdrawn his nomination as Secretary of Health and Human Services over his failure to pay tens of thousands of dollars in personal taxes. What will this mean for healthcare reform? We speak to Richard Kirsch of Healthcare for America Now. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: In what’s being described as the first major setback of Barack Obama’s presidency, Tom Daschle withdrew his nomination as secretary of Health and Human Services Tuesday after a firestorm over his failure to pay tens of thousands of dollars in personal taxes. The news came just two hours after President Obama’s nominee to be chief White House performance officer, Nancy Killefer, also withdrew her name because of unpaid payroll taxes for a household employee.

The administration had initially ignored criticism of Daschle after the disclosure last Friday that he had not paid more than $126,000 in taxes for the use of a friend’s chauffeur and car service. As recently as Monday, President Obama had pledged his full support for the former Democratic Senate Majority Leader, who was widely expected to be confirmed. But by Tuesday morning, Daschle told the President he believed his tax lapses had become a “distraction.” In a statement, he said he would not have been able to lead an overhaul of the nation’s healthcare system “with the full faith of the Congress and the American people.”

In a series of Oval Office interviews on broadcast and cable television networks last night, President Obama acknowledged he had “made a mistake” and said he took responsibility for the errors. This is what he had to say on CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360.

    PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Tom made an assessment that, having made a mistake on his taxes that he took responsibility for and indicated was a mistake — made the assessment that he was going to be too much of a distraction in trying to lead what is going to be a very heavy lift, trying to deliver healthcare. And —-

    ANDERSON COOPER: Do you feel you messed up in letting it get this far?

    PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Yes, I think I made a mistake, and I told Tom that. I take responsibility for the appointees.

    ANDERSON COOPER: What was your mistake? At letting it get this far? You should have pulled it earlier?

    PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Well, I think my mistake is not in selecting Tom originally, because I think nobody was better equipped to deal both with the substance and policy of healthcare -— he understands it as well as anybody — but also the politics, which is going to be required to actually get it done.

AMY GOODMAN: The White House is considering replacing Daschle with two people. He had negotiated a special arrangement to serve in the cabinet as secretary of Health and Human Services, while also serving as director of a new White House Office of Health Reform.

The New York Times described Daschle as “an unusually well positioned architect for a big legislative campaign” to expand healthcare. Daschle served ten years as the Democratic leader in the Senate as part of a twenty-six-year legislative career. After leaving Congress, he became a leading champion of healthcare reform. He also represented healthcare clients for his law firm, and he received more than a quarter of a million dollars in income from paid speeches and advice given to corporations in the healthcare sector.

Among the people mentioned as possible candidates for the job of Health Secretary are Governor Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas, former Governor John Kitzhaber of Oregon and Governor Jennifer Granholm of Michigan.

For more, we’re joined right now by Richard Kirsch, the national campaign manager of Health Care for America Now.

We welcome you to Democracy Now!

RICHARD KIRSCH: Great to be here with you this morning, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, first start off by responding to what’s happened to Tom Daschle and the significance of this for healthcare reform.

RICHARD KIRSCH: Well, I don’t think it significantly will impede winning healthcare reform, because there’s such momentum and such commitment from the White House and the congressional leadership.

Having said that, as you just heard President Obama say, there were ways that Tom Daschle was uniquely equipped for the job. The thing about healthcare is that the policy and politics of healthcare are really intertwined very closely, and he does understand healthcare policy very well. And as a former Senate Majority Leader, he understands politics in Washington. So he was the first obvious choice for the job. He’s someone who had backed Senator Obama early in the campaign.

But again, he’s gone, and the real fact is that Obama is very strongly committed to getting healthcare done in 2009. The Senate Finance Chair Max Baucus is. Ted Kennedy is. We just heard this week, Henry Waxman, who’s the new chair of Energy and Commerce in the House being committed. And that’s what really matters. And then, the other thing that matters is this is a pressing issue that the American public really is demanding action on.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, Richard Kirsch, there are two issues here. One is his failure to pay over $100,000 in taxes. But talk about the other issue of where Tom Daschle went after he left the Senate, who he represented, where he made his money.

RICHARD KIRSCH: Well, it wasn’t exclusively this, but he had a lot of clients. He worked for a law firm. He worked for an investment firm. And some of his clients were in the healthcare industry, and he did some speeches in front of the healthcare industry. And, you know, that also was an issue that wasn’t disqualifying him, but that were raising some eyebrows.

AMY GOODMAN: You’re talking insurance companies?

RICHARD KIRSCH: Insurance companies were among those. Having said that, you know, I don’t think that that was really clouding his judgment in the job. I mean, the President’s plan, which he put forth in the campaign, calls for two things. It calls for very strict regulation of the private insurance industry, and it calls for the establishment of a new public health insurance plan that would basically compete with private insurers and allow people to have insurance that’s not reliant on private insurance. And Senator Daschle was very firmly committed to those principles, and he really understands all the politics. So I think that while, you know, it would have been better if he hadn’t had those clients, I don’t think it clouded his ability to make judgments about the right kind of policies we needed.

AMY GOODMAN: What about other senators and Congress members, the power of the health insurance industry in lobbying to prevent healthcare reform?

RICHARD KIRSCH: Well, it’s huge. And, you know, the debate this year is really going to come down to whether or not the insurance industry can block the kind of healthcare reform that’s really meaningful.

A great example was the insurance industry lobby, and I love their name. They call themselves America’s Health Insurance Plans, like they’re ours. Unfortunately, they’re too much ours. They came up with a plan, and on page nine of their plan, it says, “If you go medically bankrupt under our plan and you’re of moderate income, we’ll give you some taxpayer credits — tax credits so you don’t go bankrupt.” We thought the purpose of healthcare reform was to stop medical bankruptcy, not to allow it to continue to happen and then get some government relief. The insurance industry were putting out these plans that continue to let them charge whatever they want, allow them to have high deductibles, assign their own benefits. And they’re going to — you know, they’re not saying this year, like they did in ’93, ’94, “Don’t do health insurance reform”; they’re saying, “Do it our way,” which is a way that will really be bad for people.

So it’s a huge lobby, and what our whole goal at Health Care for America now is to build up the grassroots campaign that will really make it clear that Americans want a healthcare system that doesn’t put insurance company profits before our health.

AMY GOODMAN: Richard Kirsch, what do you see is doable in this four years? I mean, Americans are right now going through a mass crisis like we haven’t seen for decades, perhaps even seventy-five years. We’re not only talking about record levels of unemployment that will add to the pressure around the issue of healthcare, you’ve got the auto industry going under, the auto industry competing with companies around the world that come from single-payer health countries or countries where there is healthcare for everyone so the companies themselves don’t have to pay it. What can you see happening now?

RICHARD KIRSCH: Well, it’s not just four years. I actually think it’s this year. I mean, President Obama said back in December that in 2009 he wanted to see accessible, affordable health coverage for every American. The administration and the leadership in Congress believes that 2009 is the year to do it. So — and what they’re looking for is passing legislation that will guarantee everyone affordable coverage, coverage that’s good, and also coverage that has highly — a choice of either highly regulated private insurance or a public health insurance plan, so you’re not just stuck with private insurance. That’s what their goals are. That’s actually what the goals of our campaign are. And 2009 is the year.

And I think to believe — you know, in terms of the question of the crisis, which you raised, Amy, this is really an opportunity, in terms of American history. There’s a guy named Mike Lux, who just published a book called The Progressive Revolution: How the Best in America Came to Be. And he talks about three things you need to have to make the kind of historic changes that have reshaped our country for, you know, two centuries, whether it’s what happened in the Civil War or the progressive movement or the New Deal or the Great Society and the civil rights movement. One is you need a crisis. And we have that crisis. Two is you need a leader that’s open to change, and clearly that was the central theme of President Obama’s campaign. And three is you need a movement. And there’s a lot of movement. We saw a movement in the campaign. There’s a huge movement behind people who want to get healthcare. And really, it’s making that movement so that Congress stands up to the health insurance industry and the drug companies and the others who are going to want to block change.

AMY GOODMAN: And how do you see this not being a reprise of when Hillary Clinton, as First Lady, was in charge of reforming healthcare?

RICHARD KIRSCH: We’ve learned a lot. I mean, it’s not — it’s true the healthcare insurance crisis has gotten worse the last sixteen years and that even groups before that said we could not do it, like major parts of the business community, are now saying we have to do something.

We’ve also learned a lot about building a huge base. Our organization, Health Care for America Now, includes the most — the largest progressive forces in the country, the biggest unions, online groups like MoveOn, community-based networks. We’ve got more than 700 organizations, a hundred organizers around the country. There wasn’t that kind of really well organized grassroots movement.

We’re also advocating for a set of specific changes that will solve the policy problem. Last time, when President Clinton tried it, he called for something called managed competition. No one knew what it was. It really scared people. We’ve been developing for several years an approach that really will actually provide good quality coverage and also that can win the support of American people: again, a guaranteed choice of healthcare that’s affordable, benefits that meet your needs, from a choice of a private or public health insurance plan. So, we’ve learned a lot of lessons, and we’re prepared for this fight in a way we weren’t in ’93, ’94.

AMY GOODMAN: And what are the major grassroots forces on the ground? And who do you see most receptive right now in Congress?

RICHARD KIRSCH: Well, let me start with the second question, then tell you what our forces are. I mean, the good news is that the congressional leaders have been clearly receptive. So, in the Senate, clearly Ted Kennedy is receptive and, you know, really wants to make this his legacy. But we also saw Max Baucus from Montana, the chair of the Senate Finance Committee, put out a white paper in November that was in line with the principles that President Obama has put out, that our campaign has put out. And he again said this week he wants to — even he said yesterday, after Senator Daschle’s withdrawal, that Baucus was totally committed to moving this. In the House, you’ve got a new chair of Energy and Commerce, Henry Waxman, whose strong commitment to this, reiterated that commitment, reiterated his support for a public health insurance plan. Pete Stark has been the key person in Ways and Means, totally committed. So you’ve got leadership who’s knowledgeable and really in place.

Our campaign, Health Care for America Now, so, we’ve put together purposefully the biggest unions, so it’s SEIU and AFSCME, the AFL-CIO, the National Education Association, the Communications Workers, United Food and Commercial Workers; MoveOn and True Majority, the biggest online groups; huge community organizing networks, Center for Community Change and USAction and ACORN; Children’s Defense Fund; women’s organizations; and a host of, you know, provider groups, like the American Nurses Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics. And we’ve got a hundred organizers around the country. We’re also organizing small businesses. The New York Times had an article two days ago about small businesses, organized concerns, and a lot of those are members of a new group called Main Street Alliance, who are organizing. So there’s a progressive voice for small business to counter the NFIB. So this is a real movement we’re building, and that’s what it’s going to take to stand up to the insurance industry.

AMY GOODMAN: Where does the US Chamber of Commerce stand?

RICHARD KIRSCH: They stand no place. You know, there’s Times article today that the one group that welcomed Daschle’s withdrawal was the US Chamber of Commerce, because he was going to do too much. They continue to be opposed to any employer responsibility. I mean, one of the big decisions is going to be what President Obama said, that employers have to either provide health coverage for their employees or help pay for health coverage, with the exclusion for very small businesses. But, you know, the business community wants to talk about shared responsibility, but what they mean by that is their employers have to pay — their employees have to pay, the taxpayers have to pay, but they don’t have to pay. And the American public doesn’t want that. And there are businesses who understand that if healthcare was more affordable, they can pay. But so, the Chamber of Commerce will continue to be a huge obstacle.

AMY GOODMAN: When the New Deal was put in place, national healthcare, national health insurance was one of the goals of the inner circle of FDR, particularly Frances Perkins, the Secretary of Labor. She, in the end, was forced to let go of it, if she wanted to save Social Security and other plans, because of the AMA’s opposition, the American Medical Association. Where is it now, Richard Kirsch?

RICHARD KIRSCH: You know, the AMA is not the huge force of opposition that it was, as you said, in the New Deal, and also they were the key group that killed it when Harry Truman, you know, really won in ’48 a lot on his pledge to get national healthcare. The AMA is — wants to see something done. They’re confused about what has to get done. They’re mostly interested in protecting the incomes of specialist doctors, and so they’re focusing on reimbursement issues. They’ve had a campaign saying it’s really important to cover the uninsured, which is part of the issue. We need to have a system that gives good coverage for everybody.

But we’re not nearly as concerned about the AMA as we are about the insurance industry, about the drug companies, who may be really opposed to anything that requires them to actually start, you know, charging reasonable prices and not continuing to make, you know, outlandish profits at the expense of Americans. We’re concerned about those elements, like the Chamber of Commerce and in the business community and others, who say, “We don’t want any employer responsibility.” There’s a lot of doctor groups that the AMA doesn’t represent, groups like the American Academy of Pediatricians and other primary provider groups, a new group called the National Physicians Alliance, that will have doctors’ voices as well as nurses’ voices, like the American Nurses Association, where providers clearly want healthcare reform.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Richard Kirsch, do you have a recommendation for a new head of the Department of Health and Human Services or also this new White — if they’re going to divide it into two jobs, serving as a director of a new White House Office of Health Reform?

RICHARD KIRSCH: No, we don’t. We don’t have a specific, particular recommendation. We think the key thing will be, first of all, that the person fully embraces and understands the approach that President Obama has taken, that the congressional leadership has taken, that our campaign has taken to this, and that they have the guts and stamina to stand up to the kind of interests in Washington. So we need people who have shown strength and guts and commitment, and I think that’s what we’ll be looking for more than anything else.

AMY GOODMAN: Richard Kirsch, thanks for joining us, national campaign manager of Health Care for America Now. This is Democracy Now! We’ll link to that website at

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