WASHINGTON - Tom Daschle withdrew Tuesday as President Barack Obama's nominee to be health and human services secretary, dealing potential blows to both speedy health care reform and Obama's hopes for a smooth start in the White House.
'Now we must move forward,' Obama said in a written statement accepting 'with sadness and regret' Daschle's request to be removed from consideration. A day earlier, Obama had said he 'absolutely' stood by Daschle in the face of problems over back taxes and potential conflicts of interest.
The stunning Daschle development came less than three hours after another Obama nominee also withdrew from consideration, and also over tax problems. Nancy Killefer, nominated by Obama to be the government's first chief performance officer, said she didn't want her bungling of payroll taxes on her household help to be a distraction.
'They both recognized that you can't set an example of responsibility but accept a different standard of who serves,' said White House press secretary Robert Gibbs.
Daschle, the former Senate Democratic leader, a strong and early backer of Obama's presidential bid and a close Obama friend, said he would have been unable to operate 'with the full faith of Congress and the American people.'
'I am not that leader, and will not be a distraction' to Obama's agenda, he said.
Obama had given Daschle two jobs - to be White House health czar on top of the post leading the Health and Human Services Department - and Daschle is relinquishing both. The developments called into question whether Obama will be able to move as quickly as he has promised on sweeping health care reform - one of the pillars of his first 100 days agenda and expected to be among the hardest to accomplish.
'It really sets us back a step,' said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill. 'Because he was such a talent. I mean he understood Congress, serving in the House and Senate; he certainly had the confidence of the president.'
Said White House spokesman Gibbs: 'We're looking for a new nominee, but the problem has existed for quite some time and the work toward a solution to make health care more affordable won't stop or won't pause while we look for that nominee.'
Among those considered for the post before it went to Daschle was Howard Dean, the physician-turned-politician who ran for president in 2004 and recently left as head of the Democratic National Committee.
Asked repeatedly whether the White House sought Daschle's withdrawal, Gibbs said it was Daschle's decision alone. He 'did not get a signal' from the White House to step aside, the spokesman said.
Daschle is the third high-profile Obama nominee to bow out. Obama tapped Bill Richardson to be Commerce secretary, but the New Mexico governor withdrew amid a grand jury investigation into a state contract awarded to his political donors. Obama named Republican Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire to the position Tuesday.