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Health Chief Thompson Resigns; Rumsfeld to Stay

HHS secretary directed an overhaul of Medicare that added prescription drug benefits.

December 04, 2004|Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar and Edwin Chen | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — The changing of the guard in the Bush administration continued Friday with the resignation of Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson. But officials said one of the most prominent members of the Cabinet, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, had agreed to stay on the job.

Thompson was the eighth Cabinet member to resign since President Bush's Nov. 2 reelection. Bush already has nominated new heads for six of the departments: State, Commerce, Justice, Education, Homeland Security and Agriculture. Still to be named are replacements at HHS and Energy.

Administration officials put out the word late Friday that Bush had asked Rumsfeld during their regularly scheduled Monday meeting to continue at the Defense Department, and that the Pentagon chief immediately agreed. However, an official said Rumsfeld was unlikely to stay for Bush's full second term.

The fast-paced staffing changes have given the transition the appearance of a mass flight. Senior administration officials insisted that the impending departures of more than half the Bush Cabinet should surprise no one, because the top tier had been unusually stable during Bush's first term. Until now, they noted, only two Cabinet members had left early -- Treasury Secretary Paul H. O'Neill and Housing Secretary Mel Martinez, a senator-elect from Florida.

In contrast, seven Cabinet secretaries left during former President Bush's first term, and five each left during the first terms of Presidents Reagan and Clinton.

"This Cabinet has been in place longer than most in previous administrations," White House press secretary Scott McClellan said. He said the process of staffing a second Bush term began "before the election was even over," and that the president got directly involved while at Camp David just days after his victory.

"There is a process that was put in place to move into a second term," McClellan said. "We have put in place a process that will lead to a smooth transition."

Rumsfeld long had been expected to stay at the Pentagon through at least part of Bush's second term. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, together with Rumsfeld's long-term goal of transforming the military into a lighter, more agile fighting force, had led most to believe that he would stay if asked.

Yet over the last year, Rumsfeld has been the target of widespread criticism over the prison abuse scandals in Iraq and Afghanistan and America's failure to prepare for the insurgency in Iraq.

During his tenure, Rumsfeld and his civilian aides have pushed senior uniformed officers to develop war plans that require a fraction of the ground forces once built into military campaign strategies. Advances in technology such as precision-guided weaponry, Rumsfeld argued, could do the work once required of hundreds of thousands of soldiers.

The so-called Rumsfeld Doctrine was applied with great success in Afghanistan in the weeks after Sept. 11. Covert teams of U.S. special operations troops, calling in airstrikes from U.S. bombers and fighters, fought with Afghan rebels to bring down the Taliban in little more than a month.

Rumsfeld has not matched that success in Iraq. The invasion force that quickly toppled Saddam Hussein's regime has been unable to quell a violent insurgency that has killed more than 1,200 U.S. troops. The violence in Iraq has forced the Pentagon to keep a much larger force there than officials had planned for, and this week the Defense Department announced it would boost the U.S. force in Iraq to 150,000 troops, the most since the occupation began.

Unlike Rumsfeld, Thompson had let it be known that he didn't plan to stay for a second term. The former Wisconsin governor, who mixes conservative politics with a down-to-earth style, said he would serve until Feb. 4 unless the Senate confirmed a successor earlier.

A leading candidate is Mark McClellan, a former White House policy advisor and Food and Drug Administration commissioner who now heads Medicare. Two politicians also are said to be interested in the job: Sen. John B. Breaux (D-La.), who is retiring, and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.).

Other possible successors include HHS Deputy Secretary Claude Allen; Dr. Julie L. Gerberding, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; Dr. Elias A. Zerhouni, director of the National Institutes of Health; and pioneering AIDS researcher Dr. Anthony Fauci, who heads the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

After nearly four decades in public service, Thompson, 63, said he intended to seek a job in private industry. But he did not rule out a return to elected office. He quipped he had heard the mayor's job in his hometown of Elroy, Wis., might be opening up.

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