President Bush said yesterday that he will spend the weekend considering changes in his Cabinet for his second term, feeding speculation inside and outside the White House over shake-ups in key agencies in coming weeks.
As part of what Bush called a "great Washington sport," Republicans, including several in the administration, predicted numerous impending Cabinet changes that could strongly influence U.S. policy over the next four years.
The most intense speculation centers on Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, whose rumored retirement would reconfigure the war team and perhaps lead to a broader reshuffling of Bush's national security team. Powell, however, has told friends he might stay for a few months or well into next year.
Tom Ridge, the secretary of homeland security, has told his friends he is likely to depart at the beginning of next year, people who know him said.
The domestic agencies might see more major changes, administration officials said. While a few Cabinet heads, including Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson, are rethinking retirement plans in the wake of the GOP's triumph in Tuesday's election, several departures are considered highly likely in the weeks and months ahead. Attorney General John D. Ashcroft tops this list. He wants to leave for health and personal reasons, and the White House would like to replace him, a person who recently spoke with Ashcroft said.
Cabinet secretaries planning to leave have been told to inform the president in the next few weeks. "It's inevitable there will be changes," Bush told reporters yesterday. "It happens in every administration."
Current and former administration officials said the departures will be staggered over the next nine months, because Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. believes that Bush would not be able to pursue the aggressive legislative agenda he has planned with a Cabinet filled with acting secretaries and his nominees awaiting confirmation.
"Even people who really, really, really want to go have been told they may have to wait," said a former administration official privy to the conversations. "Andy will not let everyone walk out the door at once."
White House officials said Bush also wants to avoid too much simultaneous turnover because of the ever-present possibility of a terrorist attack.
A presidential adviser who has spoken about the impending shuffle with West Wing aides said Bush does not plan high-profile nominations but will continue his pattern of naming Cabinet secretaries who -- with the notable exception of his national security team -- attract little public attention.
"The Bush brand is a few priorities, run out of the White House, with no interference from the Cabinet," the official said. "The Cabinet does not need a new face because it has no face. The function of the Bush Cabinet is to provide a chorus of support for White House policies and technical expertise for implementing them. It's like the Nixon Cabinet, without the scandal."
Powell and his deputy, Richard L. Armitage, have long been expected to leave the administration when Bush's first term ends. Powell is highly popular among the career diplomats at the State Department and publicly has remained coy about his plans, saying he "serves at the pleasure of the president."
But associates and friends say he has often expressed frustration with his limited influence in foreign policy under Bush and a desire to step down after four years on the job. Armitage, Powell's closest friend, has told associates he will stay at the State Department as long as Powell does and not one day more.
The leading candidate to replace Powell appears to be U.N. Ambassador John C. Danforth, a former senator and an ordained minister popular with the religious conservatives who helped provide Bush's margin of victory.
National security adviser Condoleezza Rice, who is frequently mentioned as a possible candidate, has told associates she is not interested in handling the diplomatic tedium and bureaucracy that comes with the job. Dark-horse candidates include centrist Democrats, such as former senator Sam Nunn, or someone with bipartisan appeal such as Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.).
Rice wants to head the Defense Department, according to several Republicans, but Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld is lobbying to keep his job, hoping for progress in Iraq and some success with Bush's agenda of military modernization.
"Rumsfeld wants to restore the golden-boy glow before he leaves," said a presidential adviser who has discussed the matter with top Bush aides.
If Rice moves to the Pentagon or leaves altogether, as some suggest, there will be a heated competition for her post. Her deputy, Stephen J. Hadley, could move up. But he would face tough competition from three important players: Paul D. Wolfowitz, deputy defense secretary and architect of the attack on Iraq; Robert Blackwill, a hard-charging former ambassador to India who now handles Iraq policy at the National Security Council; and I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, chief of staff to Vice President Cheney. Libby, at the moment, however, appears more likely to continue in his powerful role as Cheney's chief aide.
Ridge, the first secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, has indicated to friends that he wants to move on, too. Department sources said Ridge has not made any decisions except that if he were to remain for the start of Bush's second term, he would not stay for all four years. The sources said Ridge has a full schedule until the end of the year, and is likely to stay until then to avoid signaling a lack of leadership during the holiday period, which has been a time of security concern in the past couple of years.
Ridge has spent three intense years in the federal government, first as Bush's top homeland security adviser and then as head of the 170,000-employee department. Facing college tuition for two children, he also has expressed a desire to join the private sector after decades in government.
There is no clear favorite to replace Ridge, though White House officials are looking for jobs for several loyal Republicans, including Dan Coats, the U.S. ambassador to Germany, and Marc Racicot, who helped run the president's reelection campaign, officials said. Thompson is another possibility, Republicans in the government said.
Ashcroft's aides have been saying for months that the attorney general, who has spent nearly four years in the high-pressure job as the nation's chief law enforcement officer and missed nearly a month of work this year when he underwent surgery for pancreatitis, would probably leave before the start of a second Bush term. White House officials say privately that Ashcroft is almost certainly gone.
But a senior Justice Department official said yesterday that Ashcroft was reconsidering because he was "energized" by the strong GOP showing on Tuesday.
Christian groups have called the White House in recent days with messages of support for Ashcroft as a result of speculation in the news media that Ashcroft will soon depart, a Justice official said. Hundreds of calls and e-mails have come in to the department as well, he said.
One Justice official noted that heavy turnout among evangelical Christians was a crucial part of Bush's support and said the Justice Department's handling of terrorism was also a strong selling point among voters.
Danforth, a former attorney general in Missouri, is considered a top contender for the post if Ashcroft leaves. Other possible replacements include former deputy attorney general Larry D. Thompson, who would become the first African American to head the Justice Department; White House counsel Alberto R. Gonzales, who would be the first Hispanic to hold that post; and Racicot.
Treasury Secretary John W. Snow is likely to be replaced but will be given plenty of time to make a graceful exit, administration officials involved in the discussions said. Card is a possible replacement, although he is planning to stay in his job for now, friends said. One top administration official said U.S. Trade Representative Robert B. Zoellick is interested in the job but unlikely to get it.
Commerce Secretary Donald L. Evans has not said he is leaving but has sent strong signals that he plans to return to Texas, administration officials said.
Staff writers Mike Allen, Ceci Connolly, Michael Dobbs, Dan Eggen, Sara Kehaulani Goo, Al Kamen, Dafna Linzer, Christopher Lee, John Mintz and Susan Schmidt contributed to this report.