Tom Daschle has withdrawn as President Obama's nominee for health and human services secretary because of his failure to pay his taxes on time.
Daschle, the former top Democrat in the Senate, apologized publicly and privately on Monday. Senators and Obama had stood by him, but Daschle withdrew today, saying he did not want to be a distraction.
Obama said he accepted the decision with sadness and regret, the White House said.
"Now we must move forward," added Obama, who on Monday said he "absolutely" stood behind Daschle.
Besides overseeing a huge agency, Daschle was also supposed to be the point person for Obama on healthcare reform.
In his withdrawal letter, Daschle said he would have not been able to operate "with the full faith of Congress and the American people."
Asked about the stunning reversal, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Daschle made the decision because he did not want to be a distraction to Obama's agenda.
"We're at a critical juncture in our nation's history... and the president has a robust agenda to deal with those problems," Gibbs said.
Gibbs also told reporters at his daily briefing that Daschle, and deputy budget director-designate Nancy Killefer, who also withdrew over tax problems today, recognized that they could not follow a different standard of ethics and accountability than Obama is calling for.
"That agenda and the president's call for change was more important," he said.
Asked whether Daschle's withdrawal will delay the healthcare reform effort, Gibbs said others in the administration will carry the ball.
"I don't think the effort for healthcare slows down," he said. "This is bigger than any one group or individual."
Senator Max Baucus of Montana, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, had backed Daschle's nomination on Monday and is helping lead the charge for healthcare reform, along with Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts.
“It was with regret but with respect for his decision that I learned of Senator Daschle’s request to withdraw his name from consideration for Secretary of Health and Human Services," Baucus said in a statement. "Tom would have been, as I said, a terrific partner at HHS on health reform, and I hope and fully expect that he will continue to play a leading and valuable role in health policy for this country.”
Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, who had already been working with Daschle on healthcare, issued this statement:
“Tom Daschle is a public servant of high character and deep devotion to this country. He is strongly committed to health care reform and would have been an outstanding Secretary of Health and Human Services. Even though he has withdrawn his name, I know that Tom remains dedicated, as am I, to achieving quality, affordable health care for all Americans. Tom will remain a respected voice in this important debate, and I look forward to continuing to work with him.”
Senator John F. Kerry of Massachusetts added his statement:
“I wish Tom Daschle had not decided to withdraw his nomination for Secretary of Health and Human Services. While Tom’s decision is a reminder of his loyalty to President Obama and his determination not to be a distraction, this was no ordinary appointment and today is not a good day for the cause of health care reform. Tom brought a unique level of legislative skill and experience to this position in addition to his passion to achieve affordable health care for every American. Tom made it very clear he’d made a mistake and he took responsibility for it. I believe that when the smoke clears and the frenzy has ended, no one will believe that this unwitting mistake should have erased thirty years of selfless public service and remarkable legislative skill and expertise on health care. I know Tom Daschle well. I know his integrity and I respect his heart for this cause, and I know Tom will find other ways to contribute to this central mission.”
Harry Reid, the top Democrat in the Senate, said while Daschle was "ideally suited" for the job, the healthcare reform effort can move forward.
Reid told reporters on Capitol Hill that he was "terribly disappointed" by what happened to Daschle, whom he called "like a brother to me."
"I support his decision," Reid added.
Daschle was being criticized for not paying until last month $128,203 in back taxes and $11,964 in interest, mostly for the use of a private car and driver. He was also being questioned about speaking fees he accepted from healthcare interests.
Senator John Ensign of Nevada told reporters on Capitol Hill that there were "serious problems" with Daschle's activities.
While Daschle wasn't a registered lobbyist, he seemed to be in conflict with Obama's pledge to end the revolving door between lobbyists and government, Ensign said.
Daschle would have been grilled before the Senate Finance Committee next week, Ensign said. "He saved the president from being embarrassed next week in a public hearing," he said.
The statements from Daschle and the president are below:
"I have just informed the President that I am withdrawing my name from consideration for Secretary of Health and Human Services. To be chosen by President Obama to run the Department of Health and Human Services and to lead the reform of America's health care system is one of the signal honors of an improbable career.
"But if 30 years of exposure to the challenges inherent in our system has taught me anything, it has taught me that this work will require a leader who can operate with the full faith of Congress and the American people, and without distraction.
"Right now, I am not that leader, and will not be a distraction. The focus of Congress should be on the urgent business of moving the President's economic agenda forward, including affordable health care for every American.
"We need the best care in America to be available to all Americans. We need this effort to succeed. Lives and livelihoods are at stake. "I will not be the architect of America's health system reform, but I remain one of its most fervent supporters. Thank you."
"This morning, Tom Daschle asked me to withdraw his nomination. I accept his decision with sadness and regret."
Daschle "devoted his life to public service and healthcare reform, so that every American has access to health care they can afford."
But, Obama said: "Tom made a mistake, which he has openly acknowledged. He has not excused it, nor do I. But that mistake, and this decision, cannot diminish the many contributions Tom has made to this country, from his years in the military to his decades of public service."
About Political Intelligence
Glen Johnson is Politics Editor at boston.com and lead blogger for "Political Intelligence." He moved to Massachusetts in the fourth grade, and has covered local, state, and national politics for over 25 years. E-mail him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.