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Ethical, Legal Challenges Loom in Vetting Cabinet Choices

While some of President Obama's Cabinet picks have sailed through confirmation, others have hit snags, such as Tom Daschle's recent admission of past tax mistakes. Analysts mull the pitfalls of cabinet-building.

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  • JIM LEHRER:

    One of President Obama's key cabinet nominees, Tom Daschle, struggled today with a tax problem. Another, Eric Holder, sailed toward confirmation.

    Ray Suarez has our lead story report.

  • JOURNALIST:

    Mr. President, do you still stand behind Tom Daschle?

  • U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA:

    Absolutely.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    Absolutely. With that one word, the president indicated today he's sticking with Tom Daschle as his choice for secretary of health and human services.

    The former Senate majority leader's nomination ran into trouble over the weekend. Reports surfaced that he paid more than $140,000 in back taxes and interest last month.

    The tax liability stemmed mainly from the use of a car service from 2005 to 2007, provided by a close friend and business associate. The service was valued at more than $250,000 over three years, but Daschle failed to report it as income.

    He was the second Obama nominee, along with Treasury Secretary Geithner, who didn't pay his taxes on time.

    Today, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said the president is not insensitive to the problem.

    ROBERT GIBBS, White House spokesman: It's a serious mistake, but laying that mistake next to a three-decade career in public service, the president believes that Senator Daschle is still the best suited to shepherd health care reform through Congress and get something to the president's desk that will save the American people money and make the quality of health care far better.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    Earlier, Daschle sent a letter to the Senate Finance Committee saying the mistakes were unintentional. He wrote, "I'm deeply embarrassed and disappointed by the errors that required me to amend my tax returns. I apologize for the errors and profoundly regret that you have had to devote time to them."

    After remaining silent on the issue for the past two days, the Democratic chair of the Finance Committee, Max Baucus, released a statement in support of Daschle. "The ability to advance meaningful health reform in my top priority in confirming a secretary of health and human services, and I remain convinced that Senator Daschle would be an invaluable and expert partner in this effort. I'm eager to move forward together."

    Republicans in the Senate appeared to take a wait-and-see approach, including Minority Whip Jon Kyl on "FOX News Sunday."

  • SEN. JON KYL, R-Ariz.:

    We'll have to see. I just got the report. I'm on the Finance Committee, and I just got the report late Friday afternoon. So we'll have to question former Senator Daschle and understand his explanation and then have a conversation about it and see where it goes.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    Late today, Daschle met with members of the Finance Committee behind closed doors, hoping to put those questions to rest.

    The full Senate meanwhile moved to confirm another one of President Obama's cabinet picks, Attorney General-designate Eric Holder. During the hearing, some Republicans had raised concerns about controversial pardons made during Holder's service in the Clinton administration. Others complained of Holder's unequivocal declaration that waterboarding is torture.

    But by today, confirmation seemed assured.

  • SEN. PATRICK LEAHY, D-Vt.:

    When he designated Mr. Holder, President Obama said, "The attorney general serves the American people." And I have every expectation Eric will protect our people and uphold the public trust, adhere to our Constitution.

    I have no doubt that Mr. Holder understands the serious responsibilities of the attorney general of the United States, and his experience and integrity will serve him and the American people well.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    Still, there were some senators, like Republican John Cornyn of Texas, who could not get behind Holder.

  • SEN. JOHN CORNYN, R-Texas:

    Mr. Holder's experience in many ways uniquely qualifies him for this promotion as attorney general.

    But it's that very same experience when he served as deputy attorney general that calls into question his independence and judgment, particularly when the president of the United States at the time, President Bill Clinton, basically wanted something out of the Department of Justice. And this had to do specifically with two clemency petitions, one for the FLAN terrorists and the other for the notorious Marc Rich.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    There were also widespread reports the president was close to nominating Republican Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire for commerce secretary. His fellow Republicans said they had assurances the state's Democratic governor would appoint another Republican to fill the open seat.

    President Obama's first choice for commerce, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, stepped aside in the face of a grand jury probe of state contracts.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Judy Woodruff has more on cabinet-making in Washington.

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