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Where the Cabinet Is Bare

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By Al Kamen
Monday, March 23, 2009

Two months into the administration and six weeks after the Daschle demise, there is not one Obama nominee confirmed for any job in the sprawling and critical Department of Health and Human Services. (Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius was nominated to be secretary last week.)

This means, among many other things, that large operations such as the National Institutes of Health -- which just got an extra $10 billion as part of the stimulus package -- the Centers for Disease Control, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, and even the surgeon general's shop are effectively treading water waiting for new leadership.

Uncertainty seems the norm. When President Obama, back in December, announced that Thomas A. Daschle was to be head of the White House Office of Health Reform, he announced that Jeanne Lambrew would be deputy director. But we're hearing that she's been working out of the HHS building sans title for the moment and it is unclear that she will retain her deputyship in the new operation.

Other top folks, such as Bridgett Taylor, who worked at HHS and on the Hill and is a recognized expert on health-care financing, is in the headquarters building, doing work, but without official portfolio. We hear she may be assistant secretary for legislative affairs after Sebelius is confirmed.

After Daschle's departure, other top prospects, such as neurosurgeon and television reporter Sanjay Gupta, lost enthusiasm. That also may have been the case with Donald Berwick, president of the Institute for Healthcare Improvement, who had been talked about as a strong contender for the Medicare-Medicaid job.

TAG-TEAM ENVOYS

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is going to Mexico this week. Department of Homeland Security chief Janet Napolitano and Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. are going at the beginning of April. Obama is going down there in mid-April. So with all that high-powered attention, the Mexicans will surely feel the love from El Norte.

But it might be a lot cheaper -- and better for the environment, reducing the carbon footprint and all -- if the administration would select an ambassador to stay down there as a high-profile presence. They've been trying: Clinton administration transportation secretary and early Obama backer Federico Peña turned down an offer, we hear, as did Clinton White House deputy chief of staff Maria Echaveste. Given the Senate's upcoming two-week recess, there's little chance an ambassador will be in Mexico City to greet Air Force One.

ELSEWHERE IN DIPLOMACY

Speaking of foreign policy, we noted last week that Republican Sens. John McCain and Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.) had come out strongly against the nomination of Christopher Hill, assistant secretary of state for East Asia and the Pacific, to be ambassador to Iraq, citing a lack of experience in the Middle East. But Sen. Richard Lugar (Ind.) the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has endorsed Hill. That leaves Hill, assuming solid Democratic support, only one vote short of enough to break any filibuster.

Andrew Shapiro, defense and foreign policy adviser for Hillary Clinton in the Senate, is in line to be assistant secretary for political-military affairs, Foreign Policy magazine reported on its Web site last week. This is a big job for the 41-year-old, since that bureau is State's principal link with the Pentagon and handles policy on international security, military matters and defense strategy. But we're told he's been working the issues for eight years while Clinton was on the Senate Armed Services Committee and he's close to Michèle Flournoy, a key player on these matters as undersecretary of defense for policy.

Also at Foggy Bottom, chatter is that Eric Schwartz, former Clinton administration National Security Council senior director for humanitarian aid and a top U.N. human rights official, is the leading candidate to be assistant secretary of state for population, refugees and migration. At the Pentagon, Elizabeth King, legal counsel and senior foreign policy adviser to Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), is being talked about to be assistant secretary for legislative affairs.

IT'S OFFICIAL

The White House announced picks for several top jobs Friday. Veteran Africa hand Johnnie Carson, now the national intelligence officer for Africa on the National Intelligence Council, is to be assistant secretary of state for Africa; David Sandalow, a former top State Department official and expert on energy and environmental policy, is the pick to be assistant secretary for policy and international affairs at the Energy Department; Steven E. Koonin, longtime Caltech professor of theoretical physics, is heading to Energy as undersecretary for science; Federal Communications Commission member Jonathan S. Adelstein is to be administrator for the Rural Utilities Service at the Agriculture Department; Kathy Martinez, executive director of the World Institute on Disability, is the pick to be assistant secretary for disability employment policy at the Labor Department; Timothy Manning, director of New Mexico's Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, is the pick for deputy administrator for national preparedness at FEMA.; and Priscilla E. Guthrie, director of the information technology and systems division at the Institute for Defense Analyses, is to be chief information officer in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.


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