WASHINGTON — Former Sen. Tom Daschle's withdrawal as the nominee to head the Department of Health and Human Services chief came as it was becoming increasingly clear that his failure to pay taxes and his role as a high-priced consultant to health-care firms was rasing increasing opposition from average citizens.
Republicans had been largely mum on Monday about Daschle's problems. But by Tuesday, they were besieged by e-mails, phone calls and radio talk shows demanded opposition.
"The story kept getting worse and worse," said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas.
"On my gosh. The calls and e-mails to our office just erupted," said Senate Republican Policy Committee Chairman John Ensign of Nevada.
The grass roots network was revving up, fast. Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, which supports conservative causes, said Daschle's tax problems and his huge earnings in the last few years suggested an arrogance that didn’t play well in the heartland.
Too often, said Norquist, "people in this town seem to pass laws for other people to obey."
Not only were people angry about the tax problems, they were disgusted by Daschle's lobbying ties.
"Geithner, at least, seemed to have a plausible explanation for his tax problems," Ensign said, referring to Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, who failed to pay $34,000 in self-employment taxes, and repaid the amount with $8,000 interest. He was confirmed last month, but largely without Republican support.
But Daschle was another matter. "He got $2 million from a lobbying firm. How does that make him not a lobbyist?" Ensign said before Daschle withdrew. "Does that pass the smell test with most of America? I submit it probably doesn't."
Daschle met privately with Senate Finance Committee members Monday night for an hour and 15 minutes, and Democrats remained resolutely supportive. Even Tuesday, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., said Daschle should "absolutely not" quit. And after Daschle's withdrawal, they continued to praise him.
"Sen. Daschle is one of the most honorable, decent people I've ever known. I would trust my life to Tom Daschle. This is a tragedy," said Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, D-N.D. "I always have great faith in him," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.
Democrats insisted they put no pressure on Daschle to quit. "I really hadn't decided how I would vote," said Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb.
But privately, they noted that he was headed for trouble because the confirmation vote would not occur until next week, allowing the grass roots effort against him to grow, and at least one Senate committee was likely to hold another public hearing on his nomination.
"This hadn't reached the 'grocery line' test yet," said Nelson, meaning people back home were not talking about it casually, "but we found it was something they were concerned about."
Democrats were uncertain how the withdrawal would affect Obama's health care effort. Not only is Daschle no longer a player but Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., chairman of the Senate health plan, is ailing. That deprives Obama of two of Washington’s most respected players.
Losing Daschle on health care, Conrad said, "is a tremendous loss for our country."