UNDERNEWS

Undernews is the online report of the Progressive Review, edited by Sam Smith, who covered Washington during all or part of one quarter of America's presidencies and edited alternative journals since 1964. The Review has been on the web since 1995. See main page for full contents

August 26, 2009

OBAMA RELYING ON KEY MED INDUSTRY INSIDER

NY Times - Six months have passed since the morning when Tom Daschle, the former Senate Democratic leader, under fire for not paying certain taxes, called President Obama in his study off the Oval Office to withdraw his nomination as health secretary and reform czar.

But these days it often seems as if Mr. Daschle never left the picture. With unrivaled ties on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, he talks constantly with top White House advisers, many of whom previously worked for him.

He still speaks frequently to the president, who met with him as recently as Friday morning in the Oval Office. And he remains a highly paid policy adviser to hospital, drug, pharmaceutical and other health care industry clients of Alston & Bird, the law and lobbying firm.

Now the White House and Senate Democratic leaders appear to be moving toward a blueprint for overhauling the health system, centered on nonprofit insurance cooperatives, that Mr. Daschle began promoting two months ago as a politically feasible alternative to a more muscular government-run insurance plan.

It is an idea that happens to dovetail with the interests of many Alston & Bird clients, like the insurance giant United Health and the Tennessee Hospital Association. And it is drawing angry cries of accommodation from more liberal House Democrats bent on including a public insurance plan.

Friends and associates of Mr. Daschle say the interests of Alston & Bird's clients have no influence on his views. They say he sees no conflict in advising private clients on the one hand and advising the White House on the other, because he offers the same assessment to everyone. . .

Mr. Daschle is not registered as a lobbyist and recently told U.S. News and World Report that he preferred to describe himself as a "resource" to those in government and industry. . .

Critics, though, say his ex officio role gives Alston & Bird's health care clients privileged insights into the policy process. They say Mr. Daschle's multiple advisory roles illustrate the kind of coziness with the lobbying world that Mr. Obama vowed to end. If he had been confirmed as health secretary, Mr. Daschle would have been subject to strict transparency and ethics rules.

His position, some liberals say, raises at least an appearance of a conflict of interest. "I hope the president can make a decision based on what the country wants, not what a handful of Daschle's clients want," said Representative Lynn Woolsey of California, a leader of the progressive caucus.

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