WASHINGTON -- Senators Edward M. Kennedy and Max Baucus, in a public letter to President Obama this afternoon, affirmed their commitment to passing a major health care bill this year and urged the new president to move with dispatch to find a replacement for Tom Daschle, who would have been the White House's point-person on that issue.
Daschle, Obama's nominee for Health and Human Services, withdrew his name this week after acknowledging he had failed to pay $128,000 in taxes on a private car and driver lent to him by a Democratic donor. Since he lost his reelection bid in 2004, he had also earned large speaking fees from health care interests whose activities are regulated by HHS.
"We have a moral duty to ensure that every American can get quality health care," the senators' letter said. "Incremental efforts will no longer suffice and we cannot afford to wait any longer. With your continued leadership and commitment, we remain certain that our goal of enacting comprehensive health care reform can be accomplished this year.
Daschle's departure devastated health advocates, who viewed him as uniquely qualified to guide the White House reform effort. A veteran former senator with a low-key demeanor who had won respect on both sides of the aisle, Dashle had recently authored a book on health reform and had the full confidence of the president.
Baucus, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, and Kennedy, the chairman of the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, have been working steadily since last summer to prepare the way for a bill they hoped to send to the floor in the first 100 days of the new administration.
In their letter, they expressed disappointment about the Daschle situation but said the circumstances demanded immediate bold action.
"As you have emphasized we must act now," the letter said. "The ranks of the uninsured grow larger each day. The cost of health care to families, businesses and government are crippling and, although we spend more on health care than any other country, the quality of care provided by America's health care system is often uneven compared to other industrialized nations."
Health care advocates do not agree on who would the best person to replace Daschle, or whether Obama should have two people take his place -- one to head the department and one to work on the health bill.
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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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.