WASHINGTON — Senators awaited guidance from the committee reviewing Tom Daschle's nomination to be health secretary before deciding whether the former majority leader's big tax mistake might trip him up.
Former colleagues on Sunday described Daschle as a popular public servant knowledgeable in health issues, yet they wondered how one of their own could find himself in such a mess — and why the matter escaped President Obama's team of background checkers.
Democrats expressed strong support for Daschle, Obama's choice to oversee a health care overhaul, and credited him with coming forward and acknowledging a mistake. Republicans took some shots at the new administration now that a second Cabinet pick had run into tax problems and an earlier nominee withdrew amid a grand jury investigation.
The Senate Finance Committee planned to meet in executive session Monday to discuss the nomination.
"I'm going to wait until they give me their opinion," said Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. The latest disclosure about a nominee's tax problems "does raise some questions about the vetting process," he said.
His deputy, Sen. Jon Kyl, who is on the committee, said members will question Daschle and try to understand his explanation. "I think it's too early to tell," said Kyl, R-Ariz. "Well, sure, you have to be troubled by it."
Kyl said Obama "wanted to have a very ethical administration starting out and so on, but I think he's seeing how hard it is to avoid these kind of problems. And I just wonder if President Bush had nominated these people what folks would be saying about that."
But a Democratic committee member, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, brushed aside concerns that Daschle's nomination was in jeopardy. "Not for me and I hope not for fair-minded and thoughtful people," he said.
"It's obviously a mistake. But I think it's an innocent mistake. I don't think it affects one iota his ability to do the job," Kerry said.
Daschle recently filed amended tax returns to report $128,203 in back taxes and $11,964 in interest. The amended returns reflect additional income for consulting work, the use of a car service and reduced deductions for charitable contributions.
Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., said the problem could disqualify Daschle but that he wanted to learn more about the matter. "It's disheartening, obviously. People are struggling to pay taxes on a very small amount of income and he's got this huge amount," DeMint said.
Added GOP Sen. Susan Collins of Maine: "This is a a legitimate issue. ... We need some answers. We need more of an explanation than we have now. It's an awful lot of money."
The Senate's No. 2 Democrat, Dick Durbin of Illinois, defended Daschle but said skepticism, even cynicism, about Daschle not paying his taxes was understandable.
"But if you know Tom Daschle, you know better," Durbin said. "He's found himself having made a mistake and admitted to it. He took the steps necessary to start paying the taxes, make sure they're paid. Now, that's the right thing to do."
Before Daschle's difficulties over back taxes, Timothy Geithner's confirmation as treasury secretary was delayed after it was revealed that he had failed to pay more than $34,000 in taxes.
Obama's first choice for commerce secretary, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, took his name out of consideration when his confirmation appeared headed toward complications because of a grand jury investigation over how state contracts were issued to political donors.
Durbin and Kyl appeared on "Fox News Sunday," DeMint was on ABC's "This Week," Kerry spoke on NBC's "Meet the Press," and McConnell was on CBS' "Face the Nation."