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Bush down to 3 Cabinet vacancies after Friday nominations

Thompson tapped for HHS; Former Colorado official to lead Interior

President-elect Bush nominates four new Cabinet members on Friday, including Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson as health and human services secretary  

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- President-elect George W. Bush announced four new nominees to his Cabinet today as he rushed to fill top jobs in his administration, including tapping Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson as health and human services secretary.

Bush also nominated Gale Norton, Colorado's former attorney general, as secretary of the interior; Rod Paige, now superintendent of schools in Houston, Texas, as secretary of education; and Anthony Principi as secretary of veterans affairs. All must be confirmed by the Senate.

The nominations leave only vacancies at the Energy, Transportation and Labor departments to be filled in the new administration's Cabinet, and Bush said he hopes to have nominees for those posts next week.

In nominating Thompson, Bush called him "a leader and an innovator," citing his record in Wisconsin as a pioneer of welfare reform and aiding the disabled.

U.S. President-elect George W. Bush announced four new nominees to his Cabinet (December 29)

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CNN's John King reports on the Bush's choice for Secretary of Health and Human Services (December 29)

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CNN's John King looks back at the last 25 years in Rumsfeld's political career (December 28)

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U.S. President-elect George W. Bush nominates former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to again head the Pentagon (December 28)

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First elected in 1986, Thompson is the nation's longest-serving governor. If confirmed, he would take over the agency that oversees most federal health and welfare efforts -- the largest civilian department in the government. Thompson said he looked forward to helping Bush carry out campaign pledges to overhaul Social Security and Medicare, among other programs.

"As we all know, the issues that were prominent on President-elect Bush's campaign agenda are the issues that, predominantly, the Department of the Health and Human Services will help him tackle over the next four years. I appreciate the confidence that he is showing in me today," Thompson said.

"These are all tough issues, but solving tough issues is why I got into this business, and I know it is why President-elect Bush sought this job," he added.

At HHS, Thompson will be at center of debates over prescription drug coverage for the elderly and other health care issues -- and under immediate pressure from fellow anti-abortion conservatives to reverse Clinton administration rules allowing fetal tissue research.

Thompson's nomination immediately drew opposition from the abortion rights group Planned Parenthood and the National Abortion Rights Action League, but he declined to discuss the issue Friday.

"My views on these issues I will be more than happy to discuss when the Senate has my confirmation hearing," he said.

After announcing the nominations, Bush quickly left Washington for Texas, where he will spend the New Year's holiday. After a short Florida vacation with his family, Bush spent two days in the capital to name several Cabinet choices. Thursday, he said he hoped to complete his Cabinet by the end of next week.

Interior pick backs Bush on Alaskan reserve

Thompson's selection had been expected for several days, but the others emerged only recently.

The Interior Department, while not always considered a top-tier Cabinet post, will be at the center of several pressing debates in the Bush administration. Bush said he picked Norton because she has a reputation for seeking consensus on difficult issues.

"In my administration, she'll have a clear charge," Bush said. "We will restore our national parks system. We will develop partnerships with states and local governments and private citizens to conserve our lands and resources and to protect the endangered species of America."

Bush is under pressure from corporate and other interests to roll back late-term Clinton administration environmental decrees, and Bush pledged in the campaign to seek to open part of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil exploration, a pledge that angered many environmental groups. Norton said Friday she supported Bush's plan to open the Alaskan refuge to oil exploration.

She said she would work with landowners, local authorities and state governments to oversee the country's federal lands and national parks -- a common theme among many western Republicans, who have complained that the Clinton administration's Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt took an overly active federal role in the environment and land issues.

"An entire one-third of our land is owned by the federal government," she said. "We must build strong partnerships, as the president-elect said, with states, local governments and private citizens to make thoughtful decisions about our natural resources."

Friends of the Earth spokesman Brent Blackwelder noted Norton's background includes a stint with the Mountain States Legal Foundation, a conservative public-interest law firm.

"This was a foundation that made James Watt famous," Blackwelder said.

Her work for Watt, the controversial Reagan-era interior secretary, included memos recommending opening the Arctic refuge to oil exploration. Norton worked for Watt at both the Interior Department and at the Mountain States Legal Foundation.

Picks for Education, Veterans Affairs

Bush said he picked Paige because of his experience at several levels of education management -- as a college dean, a school board member and administrator of the seventh-largest school district in America. And like Bush, Paige is an advocate of school vouchers, which would use public money to send students to private schools.

"Mr. President-elect, you made education a cornerstone of your campaign," Paige said. "Those of us in education know you meant it when you said no child was to be left behind."

It was a choice made with the coming congressional debate in mind: Many Democrats say using tax dollars for school vouchers would destroy inner-city public education.

"He will throw it right back in their faces," said William Bennett, education secretary in the Reagan administration. "He knows more about it than they do. He's spent more time dealing with the problem, and he's actually solved the problem rather than pontificating about it from Capitol Hill."

A longtime Bush family friend, Paige has been widely credited with improving academic performance at the school district and was named superintendent of the year by the National Alliance of Black School Educators.

"I want an educator who had proven that urban schools can be excellent schools, and Rod Paige is the right person," Bush said.

He will be the second black member of Bush's Cabinet, along with Secretary of State-designate Colin Powell.

For Principi, meanwhile, the Department of Veterans Affairs will be familiar turf: He has served as the agency's deputy chief and acting secretary in the administration of Bush's father, as well as leading a 1999 commission on easing servicemembers' transitions to civilian life.

"I know of no mission more worthwhile than serving the men and women who have so honorably served their nation," said Principi, a former Navy officer decorated in Vietnam.

CNN Senior White House Correspondent John King, Correspondent David George and Writer Matt Smith contributed to this report.


Friday, December 29, 2000



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