President Bush tapped Mike Leavitt, chief of the Environmental Protection Agency, to be his next secretary of health and human services yesterday as the White House sought to put its Cabinet selection process back on track after the collapse of its Department of Homeland Security nomination.
The surprise selection of Leavitt put another fellow former Republican governor and Bush loyalist into the president's top tier for the second term, supervising an agency that handles some of the most politically sensitive domestic issues. It also rounded out the Cabinet except for Homeland Security, where Bush advisers scrambled to find a replacement for first choice Bernard B. Kerik, who abruptly withdrew Friday night.
Video: President Bush names Environmental Protection Agency chief Michael Leavitt as his choice for secretary of health and human services.
The White House defended its vetting process, which failed to uncover the fact that Kerik, a former New York police commissioner, had employed an illegal Mexican immigrant as a nanny without paying employment taxes. White House officials said they knew in advance about other disclosures now emerging about Kerik's background, including alleged extramarital affairs and reported ties to a construction company with supposed mob connections, but had concluded that they were not disqualifying.
As the Cabinet turnover neared an end, the White House also turned attention to other top posts to be filled in the coming weeks, most prominently the new director of national intelligence created by legislation that Bush plans to sign Friday. Two senior administration officials said yesterday that CIA Director Porter J. Goss was not under consideration and would remain at Langley working under the new intelligence director.
Bush is still looking for a new U.N. ambassador and, with Leavitt's departure, will need a new EPA director. NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe resigned yesterday in anticipation of taking an academic post. David Hobbs, the chief White House lobbyist on Capitol Hill, said he plans to leave to spend more time with his infant son.
In introducing Leavitt in the Roosevelt Room of the White House yesterday, Bush made no mention of the Kerik debacle, which was unusual for an administration known for its discipline, and took no questions from reporters. It fell to White House press secretary Scott McClellan later in the day to insist that the screening system for nominees is not broken.
"We have a thorough vetting process in place," he told reporters. "It's a process that looks closely at a candidate's professional, personal and financial background. And based on our solid record on nominations, we remain confident in that process."
In turning to Leavitt to replace outgoing Secretary Tommy G. Thompson, the president chose a known commodity who won confirmation from the Senate to his current post just 14 months ago and, according to aides, has greatly impressed Bush since then. The president described Leavitt, whose 10 years as Utah governor overlapped with Bush's tenure in the Texas capital, as "an ideal choice" to lead HHS. "He has managed the EPA with skill and with a focus on results," Bush said. "I've come to know Mike as a fine executive and as a man of great compassion."
Leavitt won praise from several other former peers as well. "He does not have an incendiary personality," said Marc F. Racicot, a former Montana governor who chaired Bush's reelection campaign. "He studies hard. He listens very carefully. He's able to bring people to the table to work on an issue in a very constructive way."
Former Oregon governor John Kitzhaber, a Democrat and physician, said: "He is an extraordinarily thoughtful guy, a moderate Republican. He can understand complex problems and is passionate about broad, sustainable solutions."
But some health care advocates said Leavitt deferred to industry. Robert K. Musil, executive director of Physicians for Social Responsibility, said Leavitt "consistently undercut and failed to enforce regulations to protect public health." In a statement, Musil added: "From his record, he appears to be more interested in protecting the health of the chemical and energy industries' bottom lines."
If confirmed, Leavitt would inherit an enormous department with several high-level openings and thorny political decisions to make.
Even before the nomination, Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.) had threatened to block Senate confirmation of the new HHS secretary out of growing frustration with White House opposition to legalizing importation of prescription drugs. And prominent Republicans such as Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (Tenn.) and Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (Utah) have been pressing the administration to broaden its policy on federally funded embryonic stem cell research. It was not clear yesterday where Leavitt stands on stem cells or drug imports.
The challenges are most acute at the Food and Drug Administration, which has been without a permanent commissioner since March and faces an investigation into charges that the agency smeared an employee who warned about dangers of five popular medications. The FDA has had to defend itself against criticism of its work on this year's flu vaccine shortage and charges that it sided with the pharmaceutical industry over consumers when safety concerns arose with drugs such as the arthritis medication Vioxx.
Leavitt was chosen over the widely forecast choice, Mark B. McClellan, head of the government's Medicare program and brother of the White House spokesman. In the end, aides said Bush decided it was more important to keep McClellan in place to supervise implementation of the new Medicare prescription drug benefit, a 10-year, $560 billion program that many seniors already view skeptically.
"That is one of the most important, difficult jobs in all of government today," Hatch said in an interview, predicting that McClellan would become secretary down the road. "Ultimately it will be his. Mark's a young man. Even he can benefit from watching a very fine administrator like Mike Leavitt."
Like Bush and Thompson, the bulk of Leavitt's experience in the health care arena was overseeing his state's Medicaid program. In the late 1990s, Leavitt lobbied Congress to turn the health program for the poor and disabled into a block grant in which a set amount of money would be sent to states to run the programs as they wished.
The effort failed, but Leavitt received a "waiver" enabling Utah to trim its benefit package to cover more people. John C. Nelson, president of the American Medical Association and Utah's deputy health director when Leavitt was governor, said Leavitt's "argument was we had a choice to cover a few people with lots of benefits or more people with some benefits."
But Cindy Mann, a Medicaid official in the Clinton administration, said the approach does not tackle underlying problems but "simply spends less because it gives people much, much less coverage."