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Tax problems won't derail Sebelius nomination, senators say

WASHINGTON — Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius' nomination as health and human services secretary remained on course Wednesday, even as she became yet another Obama Cabinet candidate with the back tax blues.

On the eve of her appearance before the Senate Finance Committee, news that she had to pay $8,000 in back taxes didn't appear to trigger a sudden effort to derail her nomination.

"We wouldn't be having this hearing if we didn't think the tax things were pretty well taken care of," said Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, the committee's ranking Republican.

Another committee member, Republican Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona, said that Sebelius' tax problems "did not appear to me to be disqualifying."

When Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, who's close to the Republican leadership, was asked whether she faced any difficulty getting confirmed, he said, "I don't think so."

Letters that the White House made public show that Sebelius paid nearly $8,000 in back taxes and interest because of errors related to the sale of a house, business expenses and charitable donations.

In a letter to the Finance Committee, she called the mistakes "unintentional." The governor said they were discovered by a certified public accountant whom she'd hired to scrutinize her tax returns after President Barack Obama nominated her for the Cabinet post.

About half a dozen of his nominees have faced bills for back taxes, and Sebelius' was at the lower end of the scale.

Former Sen. Tom Daschle, Obama's first choice for the HHS post, owed $140,000 in back taxes and interest and withdrew his nomination.

Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner owed $34,000 and Trade Representative Ron Kirk owed $10,000. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis got caught up in the spiral because her husband owed $6,400.

Sebelius' tax problems came to light Tuesday not long after she spent more than two hours before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

Standing outside the Senate chamber Wednesday, committee member Richard Burr, a North Carolina Republican, said, "I don't see anything in the governor's background that would disqualify her from serving as secretary of health and human services."

Even if Sebelius' tax problems aren't a roadblock, some lawmakers said that didn't mean she was going to get their votes. Kyl said he wanted to hear what Sebelius had to say about whether the administration had plans to "ration" health care to save money.

Republican Sen. Jim Bunning of Kentucky, who serves on the finance panel, said that he already had decided to oppose Sebelius because she supports abortion rights.

Grassley said he was withholding judgment.

"I think the tax policy would have less with how I'm going to vote on her than the other things that might come out in the hearing," he said.

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