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Tom Daschle Expected To Head HHS

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's Morning Edition from NPR News. Renee Montagne is away. I'm Steve Inskeep, good morning. President-elect Barack Obama is making up his mind on some key positions for his administration. Sources tell NPR he's made a choice for the Department of Homeland Security, one of the most important Cabinet posts right now. And that choice is Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano. Also the strategist who guided Obama's campaign will now be a senior adviser to the president, and we'll hear more on him in a moment. We begin with an appointment that offers clues to the president-elect's approach to health care. Democratic sources have told NPR that Tom Daschle is the choice to lead the Department of Health and Human Services. He's a former U.S. senator and Senate Democratic leader. NPR's Julie Rovner joins us to talk about the selection. Julie, good morning.

JULIE ROVNER: Good morning.

INSKEEP: Now, you know a lot about this issue. What makes people think that Tom Daschle knows a lot about this issue?

ROVNER: Well, he knows a lot more than a lot of people realize. He was a member of the Senate Finance Committee, which is the main committee in the Senate that deals with health care, Medicare, Medicaid - the big health issues in the Senate. He actually has just written a book on health care. He's proposed to actually have a "health care Fed" make a lot of the big decisions on health care rather than actually have Congress do it.

INSKEEP: Oh, you mean like the Federal Reserve. They appoint somebody who's supposedly independent, and he makes all the hard choices.

ROVNER: Exactly. Rather than have Congress micromanage a lot of the decisions which the Senate Finance Committee does. He's also been working for the last several months with a series of other former Senate majority leaders, Republican and Democratic - former Majority Leader Bob Dole, Howard Baker, and former Democratic Majority Leader George Mitchell - on trying to put together some consensus ideas on health reform. In fact that's where he was yesterday when this word leaked out.

INSKEEP: Well now, what does it say then about Barack Obama's intentions and priorities when you put a figure like this in charge of the Department of Health and Human Services?

ROVNER: It sent a message that this ranks very high. Tom Daschle was a very close confidant and an early supporter of Barack Obama. He was rumored to be up for chief of staff, a position that went to Rahm Emanuel. It really says that this is not going to be an issue that's going to be on the backburner, that this is going to be something that the new president intends to put very high up on his agenda.

INSKEEP: Although, what does it say that he chose Daschle, according to sources, and not some of the other possibilities - Howard Dean, the Democratic chairman who is actually a doctor, Kathleen Sebelius, the governor of Kansas who was her state's insurance commissioner, for example?

ROVNER: Well, what it says is that President-elect Obama thinks that he's really going to have legislation that needs to be negotiated on Capitol Hill, and that's something that former Senator Daschle really knows how to do; that he was not selected so much for his substantive knowledge, of which he has some, but really for his ability to deal with the members of Congress. And that was something that was really immediately recognized by his colleagues yesterday. The chairman of the Senate Finance Committee Max Baucus and other Democrats were thrilled. More importantly, many Republicans were also welcoming of the appointment. Senator Charles Grassley, the ranking Republican on the Finance Committee, who is known as being a bit cantankerous - here's what he had to say.

Senator CHARLES GRASSLEY (Republican, Iowa): He knows how the Senate works. And, boy, that's a very important first step because in the present administration, we've had a lot of Cabinet people that haven't understood how the Senate works.

ROVNER: And so someone like Daschle who can deal with Republicans would be a step up for a new administration.

INSKEEP: And talking about steps up, one other detail that's come out in the reporting here is that in addition to being this Cabinet secretary, that Daschle would be something called the health czar. What's that?

ROVNER: Well, often health policy is made not so much at the Department of Health and Human Services, but from the White House. And I think this was something that we've heard that Daschle has negotiated, that he will not only be the secretary, but he will be also the point person from the White House in charge of determining the health reform policy that's going to be coming out of the White House.

INSKEEP: And Julie Rovner, speaking as somebody who has covered Tom Daschle for years when he was in the United States Senate and elsewhere, just what kind of a guy is he?

ROVNER: He's really very mild-mannered, for all of this, you know, talk about how deeply partisan he was when he was the Democratic leader. My first run-in with him was when he was running for the Senate in 1986, and I actually got him confused with another member who was running for the Senate at the same time. And he very gently corrected me, not by saying, you have me mixed up with this other guy, but by using the other congressman's name so I would know very politely that, no, I am Congressman Daschle and this other person is the other congressman. So he's really very, very sweet and very gentle.

INSKEEP: Julie, thanks very much.

ROVNER: Thank you.

INSKEEP: NPR's Julie Rovner covers health policy. And again the news is that according to Democratic sources, former Senator Tom Daschle is President-elect Barack Obama's choice as secretary of Health and Human Services with a lot of responsibility over health care. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.

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