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Bush Likely to Name Colin Powell as Secretary of State; President-elect's Team Shifts From Legal Battles to Transition

Aired December 15, 2000 - 4:00 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

JOIE CHEN, CNN ANCHOR: Preparations for President-elect George W. Bush's transition to the White House are off and running. Bush met today at the Texas governor's mansion with Senator John Breaux of Louisiana. Breaux, a Democrat, was considered for a possible administration post, but he told Bush today that he prefers to remain in the Senate.

The president-elect also said he would make his first Cabinet announcement tomorrow, and he hinted strongly that it would be retired General Colin Powell for the position of secretary of state.

Vice President-elect Dick Cheney meantime continues transition work in the Washington area. He met today with several Republican advisers.

LOU WATERS, CNN ANCHOR: GOP advisers are giving the Bush-Cheney transition team high marks so far. Let's check in with CNN's Kelly Wallace in Austin, Texas with the Bush people there -- Kelly.

KELLY WALLACE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Lou, the president-elect deflected the question when asked if his first announcement, expected tomorrow, would be that he would be naming retired General Colin Powell as his secretary of state. He basically said he would be making his announcement tomorrow, and he hoped that reporters would be there.

Well, CNN has definitely learned that that announcement, which will be made at the president-elect's ranch just a few hours outside Austin, will be that Colin Powell will become the nation's top diplomat in a Bush administration.

Now, this is no surprise, because during the campaign, then- Governor Bush hinted that he would definitely appoint Colin Powell as his secretary of state if he won the presidency. Powell served as chairman of the joint chiefs of staff in President-elect Bush's father's administration, also in the Clinton administration, and he played a leading role in the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

Well, now we also know something else. We know someone who will not be serving in a Bush administration, and that is Democratic Senator John Breaux of Louisiana, a moderate. The president-elect invited the senator to Austin for lunch and a meeting, and that fueled speculation that Mr. Bush would, in fact, be offering a Cabinet position to Senator Breaux.

Now while Mr. Bush never said if he, in fact, offered a job to Senator Breaux, someone who he says he respects on issues such as Social Security reform and Medicare, the president-elect did indicate that Senator Breaux has no plans to leave his current job, that he wants to remain in the United States Senate.

Now, Mr. Bush was also asked if he would be inviting Democrats to join his Cabinet. He said he will be looking at a variety of folks.

And on a personal note, he was asked just when it exactly hit him that he had become the president-elect after five weeks of legal wrangling. He said he didn't sleep much or at all the night after he and Al Gore delivered speeches to the nation. He said that next morning calls from world leaders started to come in, and the responsibility of the office was evident. He said he is a more patient man now after everything that has happened. But he says his enthusiasm has never waned.

Lou, back to you.

WATERS: All right, Kelly Wallace in Austin. George W. Bush also said he's excited to get to Washington to begin his new administration. But in Washington today, the talk was of old business.

Here's CNN congressional correspondent Chris Black.

CHRIS BLACK, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Lou. The 106th Congress, though, will be history in just a few hours. CNN has learned that appropriators have made a deal, have struck a deal holding up approval of the budget for the fiscal year, which began more than two months ago. That issue concerned the Steller sea lion an endangered species. The administration was trying to restrict pollock fishing off the coast of Alaska. The senior senator from Alaska, Ted Stevens, who's also the chairman of the Appropriations Committee, objected vociferously.

Well, Senator Stevens is telling his Republican colleagues that he got about 80 percent of what he wanted, which isn't too bad. So it looks like that cleared the way for a final deal -- Lou.

WATERS: All right, Chris Black in Washington. Joie, what's next?

CHEN: The ongoing transition, President-elect Bush's higher profile and Al Gore's lower one, plenty to talk about. And for that, we turn to CNN senior political analyst Bill Schneider.

Hey, Bill.

WILLIAM SCHNEIDER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Hi, Joie.

CHEN: So General Powell, not exactly the biggest surprise in the world to see him named and to name that particular post. But what sort of signal is the president-elect sending here? SCHNEIDER: Oh, my goodness, it sends a lot of signals for this to be his first appointment, as we presume it will be, to the new Cabinet. The one thing obviously he is probably, I'd say most certainly, the most respected public figure in the United States. I mean, he was one of the heroes of the Persian Gulf War. He represents a doctrine of invincible force that a lot of Americans identify with, even if it's controversial among military theorists.

He's African-American. African-Americans, many of them are bitter and resentful over the way George W. Bush became president and the fact that they feel that were indications of civil rights violations in the Florida vote.

He's also a soft-line, not a hard-line, Republican. He supports affirmative action. He supports abortion rights. And that sends a signal that's very important for President-elect Bush, who said he would impose no litmus tests on his appointees.

CHEN: Also want to talk a little bit about John Breaux and his meeting with Governor Bush today. Obviously, he doesn't appear to want to leave the Senate, and I suppose it would be awfully difficult for him to given the political circumstances in the Senate as it enters a new session.

But what could he do for George Bush and why was he out there?

SCHNEIDER: He could be an utterly key player in the Senate. It would have surprised me if he'd accepted a post in the Bush administration, even a Cabinet post, because he will be very, very influential in the Senate. Remember, the Senate is split 50/50, and Bush can only govern with some support from Democrats. Just holding the Republicans together ain't going to do it.

Well, it would do it with Cheney, of course, acting as presiding officer. If that's all he does as vice president, he's going to play a crucial role. But he needs some Democrats, and John Breaux could be a key figure in negotiating coalitions and making deals with the president, trying to get a few Democratic votes. John Breaux is one of the -- one of the Democrats who is trusted by a number of members of both parties. So he -- he could be an absolutely key player in the new Congress.

CHEN: Do you think that meeting was purely symbolic, then, or do you think that perhaps Senator Breaux was there to offer up some other names?

SCHNEIDER: Well, we don't know. I know that it was not purely symbolic. Senator Breaux was there probably to say, I can make deals for you, I can help you, you work with me, I can work with you. It was to make it clear that he's going to be the key player in the new Senate of the United States.

CHEN: With these meetings, Governor Bush tried to send some signals, as we've noted. But what about signals to the other side? I mean, after all there are conservatives who undoubtedly want to apply some pressure of their own to try to get appointments favorable to them and to take up issues favorable to their cause.

SCHNEIDER: Conservatives might be a little worried. I mean, they know that George Bush is one of them. He ran as a conservative. He defeated John McCain because he had staunch conservative support in the party.

He didn't have a lot to say that conservatives would find reassuring the other night when he made his claim of victory after Al Gore spoke. He talked consensus and unity and reaching out and governing in coalition with Democrats. I think conservatives are -- they have confidence in Bush, particularly after the recount fight where they stood behind him and they fought the good fight with him -- for him rather. They're waiting to hear what he's going to deliver for them, and they're a little bit nervous because they know that there was no partisan mandate here.

Even though Republicans are in control of the White House and both houses of Congress for the first time since 1954, they realize that it will be a little bit tough for Bush to deliver a big payoff right away.

CHEN: We mentioned in the lead-in here Al Gore's significantly lowered profile in all this. But his place and that of the leading Democrats now, what sorts of signals should they be sending, can they be sending as the Bush administration tries to get itself under way?

SCHNEIDER: Well, they've got the same signal that the Republicans got: There was no partisan mandate, and the Republicans, I think Bush understands that and Democrats got the same message. They have to govern together, or at least try to. What Bush needs to do, what Democrats need to do is see if they can form a coalition of the center, so to speak. It doesn't usually work that way in Congress, particularly in the House of Representatives, which is bitterly divided along partisan lines: probably the most polarized institution in American politics.

But the message from the voters is you've got to govern together, and I think Democrats ought to understand that, because they really don't control anything right now.

CHEN: Bill, I have to ask you something that you and I have talked a little about, and you know, we see all these folks come forward, significant players for both parties, coming forward, appearing on the air, appearing with the president-elect. Is this a signal to folks like me, average citizens in the country, or is it really a signal sent between politicians? Hey, you on the right, you on the left, politicians playing their role?

SCHNEIDER: It's a signal really to voters that Bush intends to try to govern as the president of all the people, exactly what he said the other night. He said: "I was not elected the president of one party, I was elected the president of one country."

It's a signal to the voters, because the crucial -- crucial resource that Bush needs right now is a high public approval rating. You usually get that in a honeymoon. That's what honeymoons are all about. The president has a big burst of goodwill going into the new administration. He's at his most powerful. People want his program to be supported.

But this is a honeymoon without a wedding. I mean, it was never consummated here.

CHEN: Some people like that.

SCHNEIDER: Let's not take that -- let's not take that too far.

(LAUGHTER)

But some people think he eloped with the voters. And so therefore, he needs to do what he can to build up his public goodwill, because that's a real powerful resource in Washington.

If a president's job approval ratings are high, he's powerful. And if they sink, if they're low, if people think he's illegitimate, he can't get very much done. So he's got to build up his public support right now.

CHEN: Our senior political analyst, Bill Schneider. Thanks a lot. Have a good weekend, Bill.

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