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Special Event

Bush Announces Education, Interior, Veterans Affairs, HHS Nominees

Aired December 29, 2000 - 10:00 a.m. ET

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

DARYN KAGAN, CNN ANCHOR: Any minute now, we are expecting George W. Bush to fill in some of the blanks of his administration. The president-elect is expected to nominate Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson to head up the Department of Health and Human Services. Also, CNN has learned that Gale Norton, a former attorney general of Colorado, has emerged as the leading candidate for secretary of the interior.

We're awaiting the start of the Bush news conference. We will join it live from Washington, D.C. as soon as the president-elect approaches the podium.

Those two positions, secretary of the interior, also secretary of Health and Human Services, could be catapulted into unusual prominence because of controversial issues awaiting the White House.

For a look at that, let's turn to our CNN senior White House correspondent John King.

John, good morning once again.

JOHN KING, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Good morning to you, Daryn. And add the Education Department to that list. We're told the Houston school superintendent, Rod Paige, is the president- elect's choice to be the next secretary of education. Like the president-elect, he a man who has been a pioneer in the charter school movement in his state. He favors school vouchers. That's quite controversial, will be a big issue in the coming congressional debate.

You mentioned Gale Norton as well, former two-term attorney general of Colorado, a reflection of Vice President Cheney here, the attitude of those from the West that the federal government should take a hands-off approach to the environment. The Republicans and many conservatives, ranchers very critical of the Clinton administration for designating so much land to be national monuments and off limits to development. Gale Norton, as the two-term general -- attorney general, excuse me, of Colorado has been very critical of the Clinton administration approach and of the Washington approach in general to land management. Environmentalists likely to protest that choice.

And, as you mentioned, the nation's longest-serving governor, Tommy Thompson, governor since 1987 in the state of Wisconsin, will be the new secretary of Health and Human Services. That department in the middle of many of the big policy debates to come in the next year as the president-elect tries to push his domestic agenda through an evenly divided Congress. Health care reform, prescription drugs, any policy to do with abortion, Medicaid, all of that goes through the Department of Health and Human Services. So does much of the Social Security program.

So at least three choices today, we are told, from the president- elect. We will get a glimpse today at the key players now as President-elect Bush tries to implement much of his campaign agenda in a very difficult environment here in Washington because of the even divide in the Congress.

KAGAN: John, let's take a closer look at Tommy Thompson and the Health and Human Services Department. Tommy Thompson doing a lot of welfare reform in Wisconsin, which a lot of people giving him credit for, but also critics as well.

KING: Some liberals critical of him because he was the first governor to get his legislature to pass and put into effect a welfare reform program that included time limits. It restricted the time limits available to welfare recipient, forced them to go to work. However, liberals also say Tommy Thompson was among the leaders in recognizing, as you went ahead with that approach, that the government had a responsibility to help out -- at least initially -- with things like child care, transportation costs.

So liberals critical of the approach in general. But, remember, they were critical of it prior to Bill Clinton taking office. When Bill Clinton became the president of the United States, he pushed a policy very similar to that pioneered by Tommy Thompson in Wisconsin. That has now become the law of the land.

A reflection, again, a governor now becoming the president, much like Bill Clinton was a governor, George W. Bush was a governor, Tommy Thompson among those like the new president-elect who believe the states should have control over those issues, like prescription drugs. The first thing President-elect Bush wants to do is give the states more money to help the neediest elderly Americans pay for their prescription drugs. This a reflection of the governor's approach: give the power to the states; less power, less hands-on management here in Washington, send it back to the states. That a reflection of all three of these picks we expect to see in just a few minutes.

KAGAN: And moving on to the Department of the Interior. As you mentioned, a lot of Republicans not happy with a very activist Bruce Babbitt as secretary of the interior. But a hot-button issue that's going to come up is Alaska and energy and what should be done about that. What do we know about Gale Norton's position on that?

KING: We know that she served in the Interior Department as an attorney back in the Reagan administration. Remember the interior secretary, James Watt. He was quite a controversial figure during the Reagan administration. As an attorney on his staff, Ms. Norton wrote memos advocating oil exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Again, that a position favored by the president-elect. This appointment here sure to be criticized by environmental groups. She's been a two-term attorney general in Colorado. She was a prominent player in those national tobacco negotiation a few years back. She is also an advocate of abortion rights like Christie Whitman, the governor of New Jersey, an abortion rights supporter who, in the Bush Cabinet, will have a role in environmental and land-use policy, not directly involved in any social policy.

KAGAN: And then Rod Paige, if he is tapped to head the Education Department, coming from Houston schools. We've seen President-elect Bush pick from a lot of state level positions, also from federal level positions, but not from local positions like Houston.

KING: Well, we did see him pick a county chairman from Florida, a county official from Florida for housing and human -- Housing and Urban Development -- excuse me. Now he will pick a man Gov. Bush knows quite well from his days in Texas, Rod Paige, the administrator of the Houston Independent School District. That's the seventh largest school district in the United States, a man who has been recognized by his peers, he's an African American -- President-elect Bush has promised diversity in the Cabinet.

He is credited with turning around the seventh largest school district. And, again, he is a big advocate -- some 25 charter schools formed in Houston during his tenure -- a big advocate of using taxpayer dollars if necessary to help parents, if they believe their public schools are failing, to take them out of the public schools and put them in either charter schools or private schools. That will be a key item on the Bush agenda, a key issue.

One of the first things the president-elect wants to do because of the closely divided Congress is find issues on which he can agree with centrist Democrats to begin a governing coalition.

Here we see the group walking out here. You see Mr. Paige, you see Ms. Norton, and here's the president-elect.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT-ELECT: Good afternoon -- or good morning. I have the honor of announcing four more Cabinet nominees today.

First, Department of Education: I looked for someone who is a reformer and someone who had a record of results, someone who understands that it is important for us to set the highest of high standards, and not accept excuse -- failures -- any excuse for failure. I want an educator who had proven that urban schools can be excellent schools, and Rod Paige is the right person.

Rod has had experience at every level in education. He's been a college dean, he's elected as a school board member and he is serving as a superintendent of the Houston Independent School District. I know him well.

He believes as I do, that accountability is the foundation of true education reform. He understands that we have the need to make sure we don't shuffle children through our system, we don't give up on any child, regardless of their background. He believes that parents ought to be trusted in making decisions for their children.

He believes that every child can learn, and every school can succeed in America. I'm really proud that he's accepted the nomination.

For the Department of the Interior, our country needs a leader who will respect the land and honor our national commitment to conservation.

To serve as the 48th secretary of the Interior, I will nominate Gale Norton of Colorado. Gale is a former attorney general of Colorado with a reputation for building consensus on divisive issues.

In my administration, she'll have a clear charge. 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.

We will find ways to develop our nations' resources in a balanced and an environmentally friendly way.

During my campaign, I pledged that we would honor our veterans just as they have honored our country. I also pledged that veterans would have an advocate leading the Department of Veterans Affairs.

My choice for that position, Tony Principi, will serve Americans who have served our country.

Tony is well-known amongst the veterans. After all, he is a highly decorated veteran -- Vietnam War veteran.

I'm asking him to take the lead in modernizing the Veterans' health care system, so all our veterans are treated with dignity. Tony understands that one of our goals will be to make sure that claims will be processed faster.

And the VA will return to the basic principle that it has a duty to assist veterans who are seeking benefits. In my administration, veterans will have a strong and constant ally, not only in the president, but in the secretary of veterans affairs.

And finally, for the Department of Health and Human Services, I've chosen one of our nation's finest governors. I know this man very well; I know his record; I know his ability to lead.

Tommy has been a creative, conservative, compassionate governor of Wisconsin. Real welfare reform began in Wisconsin, and has been duplicated in other states. He's a leader and innovator. He's also been a champion of education reform and for opportunity for disadvantaged Americans. He will bring creativity and conviction to Washington, D.C. It is such an honor to have Tommy Thompson agree to leave the position of governor of Wisconsin to come and serve our nation.

And so, it is with great proud that I announce the four candidates today. I'm going to ask each one of the candidates to say a few words. After they speak, I'm heading back to Austin.

I want you all to have a happy holiday season and a great new year, and I look forward to seeing you after the New Year celebration.

So, first, it's my honor to bring to the podium Mr. Rod Paige of Houston, Texas.

ROD PAIGE, EDUCATION SECRETARY NOMINEE: Mr. President-elect, thank you for this tremendous honor. I'm humbled by your faith and confidence in me.

And I want you to know that I won't let you down.

If I'm honored to be confirmed by the Senate, I will dedicate myself everyday to the task of assuring that no child in America will be left behind.

Mr. President-elect, I also want to thank you for your support of the Houston Independent School District.

Sir, I am only one of more than a thousand school superintendents in Texas who saw your compassion for our young people up close. We knew it was one thing for our candidate for political office to talk about better schools, and it's quite another to back that talk up with action.

We noticed right away that you didn't just talk the talk; you walked the walk. You indeed have been the education governor, and you will be the education president, too.

You see we know that if expectations are set high and if educators and parents work hard together, every child can thrive. The bottom line is this: When we set high standards for our schools and our children and when we give our schools and our children the support they need and hold them accountable for results, public education can get the job done.

I want to thank the Board of Trustees of the Houston Independent School District for its outstanding leadership and the citizens of Houston for their support of their schools.

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

Sir, thank you again for this honor.

BUSH: Good job. Thanks. Gale?

GALE NORTON, INTERIOR SECRETARY NOMINEE: Thank you, Mr. President-elect. It is an incredible honor for me to be nominated as secretary of the Interior.

The issues I will face if I am confirmed will be challenging and important ones, and I look forward to tackling them. From the time I was a young child growing up in Colorado, I have loved the Rocky Mountains, a place to hike with my dog watching elk in a grove of aspen trees, or contemplate the eternity gazing at jagged mountain peaks. In fact, if it were not for a call from the Bush transition team, my husband, John, and I would be skiing in those mountains today.

From the ancient ruins of Mesa Verde to the grandeur of Yosemite Valley and the vast open lands of the West, from the untamed wilderness of Alaska to our historic treasures in Washington, D.C., the public lands of the United States are amazing places. To be asked to take on the job of managing a large portion of those beautiful and special places is an awesome responsibility.

I welcome the opportunity to work with President-elect Bush to preserve our wonderful, national treasures, to restore endangered species, and to help Americans enjoy the great outdoors.

An entire one-third of our land is owned by the federal government. Together with the other departments that own that land, the Department of the Interior faces the challenge of seeing that our land is used in an environmentally responsible way. We must build strong partnerships, as the president-elect said, with states, local governments, and private citizens to make thoughtful decisions about natural resources.

I bring to this task a special experience in working with government as it should be. When I was attorney general of Colorado, I worked together in a bipartisan way, with attorneys general from across the country. We tackled many difficult issues and overcame a diversity of viewpoints to find common ground. I look forward to drawing upon that bipartisan tradition, as I tackle new challenges.

Thank you.

BUSH: Good job. Very good.

Tony?

ANTHONY PRINCIPI, VETERANS AFFAIRS NOMINEE: President-elect Bush, I'm humbled that you have entrusted me with the mission of honoring your commitment to the men and women whose military service preserved America's freedoms.

Shortly after he immigrated to this country, my father, like so many gallant Americans, joined the ranks of the men and women who came to be described as the greatest generation, because of their service in World War II.

Our fathers were members of a great generation, just as were their younger brothers and sisters who turned back aggression in Korea, their children who endured severe hardships in Vietnam, and their grandchildren who earned a great victory in the Persian Gulf, just as were the unheralded millions, who stood ready on the ramparts of freedom during the decades of the Cold War, and those who serve today throughout the world. And I'm proud two of my sons are among them.

America now reaps the fruit of the service of 24 million veterans. However, their service imposes upon us a reciprocal obligation. The president-elect has charged me with the mission of transforming that obligation into the benefits and services earned by generations of veterans. I am proud to respond to that call, just as those veterans responded when their country called upon them.

If confirmed by the Senate, I know that I will face great challenges, but no worthwhile mission is without challenge. I know of no mission more worthwhile than serving the men and women who have so honorably served their nation.

I accept the challenge, knowing that I have the full support of the president, the assistance of VA's 200,000 very dedicated employees, the partnership of the America's veteran service organizations, and certainly the commitment of a caring nation.

Thank you, President-elect Bush, for this great honor.

BUSH: Good job. You read it just like I wrote it.

(LAUGHTER)

Governor Thompson?

GOV. TOMMY THOMPSON (R-WI), HHS SECRETARY NOMINEE: Thank you very much, Mr. President-elect, and let me add that it is a real honor as a fellow Republican governor to be able to say that.

BUSH: Thank you.

THOMPSON: I have a great deal of humbleness and great deal of support and confidence in you.

Fellow Cabinet designees, it's an honor to be associated with such outstanding people. I thank you so very much.

Let me begin by thanking you all, but thanking you, Mr. President-elect, for entrusting me with such tremendous responsibility. As your nominee for the secretary of health and human service, it's a humbling honor and an incredible challenge, a challenge that I will embrace enthusiastically and with great passion.

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, and I appreciate the confidence that he is showing in me today.

For those here who may not know much about me, let me give you some very short insights by saying this. Welfare reform, health care reform, long-term care for seniors, greater opportunities for the disabled, helping the poor find work and helping the working-poor find rewards in their efforts, biotechnology and scientific research: I am absolutely passionate about these issues. These are issues I have dedicated 35 years of public service to solving, the last 14, as governor of my great state of Wisconsin. And should I be confirmed, I would be fortunate to add Social Security reform and others to the list, as well as have the opportunity to address all these issues at the federal level.

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 and why he traversed such a grueling road to get the opportunity to lead this great nation.

But while excited about these issues and challenges at HHS, they alone are not the reason that I would leave my beloved state of Wisconsin and a job I love very much to come to Washington, D.C. I will do so, because I believe so very much in George W. Bush, and more than that, the agenda for America that he is seeking to accomplish.

This is a man, a leader, who wants to bring about meaningful changes to better the lives of all of our citizens.

I personally was so excited to see a presidential candidate from our party who is finally willing to put these social issues front and center in his campaign, a leader who is bold enough to stand up and say, he was going to ignore the safe politics and take on the tough challenges facing the people of America: the third-rail issues of Social Security, health care for working families, Medicare reform and prescription drugs, welfare reform, and improving our underperforming schools, issues that make a difference in everybody's lives.

And it is inspiring to see a leader in President-elect Bush who isn't afraid to call all of us to action as we address these difficult problems, a leader who recognizes that government alone cannot reduce poverty or solve societal issues; it takes all of us working together as partners, including the faith community. George Bush is a man who wants to solve the unsolvable problems, and he, he knows how to get job done.

Keep in mind, a compassionate conservative is a person of action, not one of words, for compassion means being bold, and courageous enough to act and to lead.

It will be an honor to serve the president, as he aggressively works to make the lives of millions of Americans better, and restore hope and opportunity for those who have been left behind in this great country. This is going to be an administration of action, and I am very proud to be part of it.

BUSH: Good job, Tommy. Thank you all.

Thank you all very much. I hope everybody has a great New Year's celebration. See you down in Austin next week. God bless.

QUESTION: Why are you in such a rush to leave?

(UNKNOWN): Happy New Year, my friend.

(CROSSTALK)

QUESTION: Are you Democrat or Republican?

PAIGE: I'm a Republican, sir.

Thank you.

QUESTION: Were you elected as a Republican when you were elected to the school board?

PAIGE: It was a nonpartisan race in Houston.

QUESTION: Dr. Paige, you have had a connection (OFF-MIKE) can you talk about what it's like for you (OFF-MIKE) now being in the Cabinet? Your own personal facts (ph)?

PAIGE: It's kind a surreal experience. I have known and admired the Bush family for a long period of time. I didn't realize that it was quite that long, but it has been a family that I have respected for their commitment to society and for their dedication and hard work to our country, and I am just pleased to be able to play a small part in it.

QUESTION: I wonder if you could tell us what is the single biggest problem of public education in this country? (OFF-MIKE)

PAIGE: I don't think that there is any single. I think that there are enough of vulnerabilities in the way that we do schooling for all of us to take some responsibility for our improving it.

I think the public is where we need to begin our work. This is a public system, it is for the public's benefit, it is a public good, and the public must bring itself together and work hard to achieve it.

QUESTION: Governor Thompson, some pro-lifers have expressed concern about your position on fetal tissue research. Can you talk about your position on that, and your position generally on the pro- life or pro-choice issue?

THOMPSON: I am a pro-life governor. And as you all know, I chaired the platform committee for the Republican Party, and everybody knows that I listen to everybody and will continue to do so. And my views on these issues, I will be more than happy to discuss when the Senate has my confirmation hearing.

(CROSSTALK)

QUESTION: Secretary Shalala, this week, surprised a lot of people by refusing to endorse the proposal to reinforce drug (OFF- MIKE). Will you reverse that decision if you become Secretary?

THOMPSON: I will be taking a look at that, but at this point in time I have not made a decision as to what my position would be.

QUESTION: Ms. Norton, may I ask you a question: As interior secretary, what is your position on the reaction by the Clinton administration to fence off vast acreage of western land? And will the Bush administration try to reverse it -- these decisions?

NORTON: The West was concerned about those decisions, in large part, because there was no consultation with the people whose lives were most affected by land withdrawals by the Clinton administration.

I will be discussing those issues with the Senate as part of my confirmation hearings. At this time, I have no position on what the incoming administration will be doing as to those designations.

(CROSSTALK)

QUESTION: What about drilling in the ANWR?

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) once they've been established?

NORTON: That is an issue that we will have to examine as part of the confirmation hearings. It is not appropriate for me to comment at this point.

QUESTION: What about drilling in the ANWR?

NORTON: President-elect Bush took a position as part of his campaign that, because of the need to balance environmental protection and also our need to utilize the resources of the public lands, that we should explore opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for oil and gas exploration.

NORTON: The belief is that there are huge amounts of oil available in that area. That is an issue, again, that I cannot comment on in terms of my own actions on that, but I do support the president in the positions that he has taken during his campaign.

(CROSSTALK)

QUESTION: Dr. Paige, last week you told us you didn't think you were going take the job because you had unfinished business in Houston. What changed your mind? And what experience do you think you'll use in this job?

PAIGE: I don't think I've ever made an emphatic statement like that. I did enjoy my responsibility in Houston, and it is with some concern that I leave, because I enjoyed it there. It's a great city. But this is a big responsibility that I think I can help with; I think I can make a difference, and I want to take that opportunity to do it.

QUESTION: Governor Thompson, your statement on behalf of the public schools, does that indicate your point of view on sending children to private schools with public money?

STAFF: Thank you.

KAGAN: And as we see the four new nominees walking off the podium there, as expected, George W. Bush picking for his administration Rod Paige from Houston to head up the Education Department; Gale Norton from Colorado to head up the interior; Health and Human Services secretary he would like to be Tommy Thompson, currently governor of Wisconsin; and then the one that, actually, I don't think we expected to be announced, to head the Veterans Department, Veterans Affairs, Tony Principi.

Let's bring in our John King again.

John, the one surprise there: Veterans Department.

KING: We weren't sure that one was coming today, but we did know the president elect met with Mr. Principi yesterday. He goes back to the Reagan administration. He's a veteran of the armed services. That's a key issue for President-elect Bush as we see him building his national security team, and now at the Department of Veterans Affairs.

And Mr. Principi, like each of these choices announced today, each of them will have a pretty controversial issue, or three or four or more, to deal with if they are confirmed by the Senate. For him, it will be the veterans health program, President-elect Bush looking for major reform there.

The most controversial of this group, though, may be the one we know very little about on a national stage: Gale Norton, the choice for interior secretary. You heard her views there about drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Environmental groups and many Democrats in the Senate sure to make that a big issue, a very different view than the Clinton administration on the federal government's role and managing federal land and, indeed, acquiring more land and putting it under the auspices of the federal government.

For Gov. Thompson, now set to be the secretary of Health and Human Services, you saw him asked there. Some conservatives clamoring for President-elect Bush to quickly reverse Clinton administration guidelines allowing fetal tissue research. You saw the governor there say, well, I'm not going to get into those issues just yet. I want to go through the confirmation process. He also, of course, will get his guidance on how to proceed from the White House.

And the secretary of education designee, Mr. Paige, asked as he walked out of the room to discuss how he would push forward with his advocacy and President-elect Bush's advocacy of school vouchers. He walked away as the question-and-answer period was cut off there. That will be a major issue in his confirmation hearings, and as he becomes the next education secretary.

No one here expected to be defeated by the Senate. I think, of these four, you will see the most protest raised about Ms. Norton.

KAGAN: Much discussion ahead and much coverage as well. John King in Washington, thank you very much.

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