Crosscurrents on Bush's Cabinet

So far, his picks are moderates. But Democrats and conservatives are still pressing for a nod.

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Call it the Republican Rainbow Coalition.

With a Cabinet team that already includes several minorities and women - and that's as diverse as Bill Clinton's so far - President-elect George W. Bush has begun to assemble a crew with a wide range of backgrounds, experience, and positions. Common threads include strong pragmatism, Washington experience, and personal ties to the Bush-Cheney team.

But there's a growing source of tension: Both Democrats and conservatives insist on being amply represented in the final group. That pressure hangs over the next round of announcements, as Mr. Bush struggles to keep both sides happy - while avoiding any polarizing picks.

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Indeed, despite the Bush camp's insistence that they will include at least one opposite-party member, some Democrats worry that key posts are filling up fast.

"They're running out of top spots," says Will Marshall, head of the Democratic Leadership Council, the top New Democrat think tank here. Nevertheless, he adds, "the symbolism is pretty good so far."

The current choices point to Mr. Bush having a moderate governing style, and a deft hand at balancing his party's various factions. The next expected announcements, which could come as early as today, are relevant examples:

* New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman is the high-wattage Garden State chief executive who may head the Environmental Protection Agency. She's a liberal by Republican standards, who supports abortion rights. Appointing her would please party moderates. But putting her at the EPA means she won't make decisions on hot-button social-policy issues. Bush thus avoids angering the party conservatives.

* Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson, best known for his crusading welfare-reform work, may become secretary of Health and Human Services, a key social-policy post. Since he's generally conservative - and opposes abortion rights - he's acceptable to the right wing.

* Former Indiana Sen. Dan Coats, an outspoken conservative on social issues, is a contender for Defense secretary. His support of fast-track weapons modernization and a national missile defense makes him simpatico with Bush. But liberal groups are concerned about his anti-gays-in-the-military stance.

Yet for all the balancing, conservatives don't seem entirely mollified. Montana Gov. Marc Racicot's withdrawal Wednesday from the running for attorney general suggests to some that they're gunning hard for more of their own in key jobs.

"It's been a mixed bag so far," says a skeptical Larry Klayman, head of Judicial Watch, a conservative group here.

Indeed, the first round of picks were mostly pragmatists who don't mesh with rightward-leaning GOP orthodoxy.

They include retired Gen. Colin Powell for secretary of State, industrialist Paul O'Neill as secretary of Treasury, Bush campaign chairman Don Evans as Commerce secretary, former California agriculture head Ann Veneman as Agriculture chief, and Florida county executive Mel Martinez at Housing and Urban Development.

In terms of diversity, the group rivals President Clinton's 1992 Cabinet, which was picked to "look like America." Of the first five appointments, two are minorities, and one is a woman. And this week, General Powell stressed his desire to bring more minorities into the diplomatic corps.

Washington experience is also a big element in the team. Powell headed the Joint Chiefs of Staff - and helped win the Gulf War. Mr. O'Neill, the chairman of aluminum-giant Alcoa, was deputy director of the nation's budget office under President Ford. Ms. Veneman was an assistant secretary of Agriculture under the elder President Bush, the highest-ranking woman to ever serve in the department.

But experience isn't enough to serve in the Bush Cabinet. Personal ties are key. Mr. Evans, for instance, is perhaps Bush's best friend. They once almost crashed together in a private plane Bush was flying. And they attended Bible study classes together. Powell and Vice President-elect Dick Cheney led the Gulf War team together. Mr. Cheney, too, is close to O'Neill, who in turn boasted this week about his ties to Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan. Martinez is a close ally of Bush's brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. Veneman was an early Bush supporter in California.

Despite this raft of Republicans, Bush staffers insist they are seeking out Democrats. One of the names being floated - perhaps for Education secretary - is Floyd Flake, a former congressman from New York and pastor of an African-American church, who favors school vouchers.

But so far, finding Democrats willing to join the Bush Cabinet has not been easy. The main reason: Few Democrats in Congress or governor's mansions want to join his team and risk being replaced by a Republican, which could flip the near-even balance of power.

Some Democrats have also expressed concern about being branded a turncoat and losing their standing within their own party. Mr. Marshall assesses the risks: "Does it mean liberals are going to look more askance at you? Yes. But are you beyond the pale? No."

Besides, Cabinet secretaries aren't often in a president's inner circle anyway, he adds. "Perhaps it would have more resonance if the president-elect were to bring in a prominent Democrat into the inner strategic circle."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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