Early lines on Bush's next cabinet

At Camp David, the president weighed what could be a slow but sweeping shuffle.

President Bush has enjoyed extraordinary continuity and loyalty from his cabinet. Now, a second term won, the personnel shuffle will soon begin - though not all at once. Over the next few months, and probably well into next year, expect a steady stream of top-level Bush appointees either to leave altogether or to move to other high-level jobs.

As Bush considered his options at Camp David this weekend, the great Washington rumor mill worked overtime, with friends of cabinet secretaries speculating about who would leave and who might replace them.

Among those considered likely to leave include Attorney General John Ashcroft, Secretary of State Colin Powell, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, and Treasury Secretary John Snow. But even they may not go immediately, in part because they are reportedly energized by Bush's victory and also because of the issues at stake.

"Word went out after 9/11 that people should basically stay put, and most cabinet officers were of a mind to do that," says Paul Light, a professor of public policy at New York University. "Now I think you'll really see the revolving door start to spin, and it will accelerate through June."

What does seem clear is that the policy agenda for Bush II has been set, and that remaining debates over how to proceed on priorities such as tax reform and Social Security are going on right now inside the White House, and not awaiting input from new appointees. Though Bush spoke in his press conference last Thursday of wanting "people to walk in and say, 'I don't agree with this' or 'I do agree with that,' " analysts say that this president keeps his decisions to a relatively tight circle, and is not inclined to throw them out to the cabinet.

Increasingly, decisionmaking is tightly coordinated by the White House, with outside input getting steadily narrower. Political director Karl Rove holds weekly conference calls with cabinet secretaries' chiefs of staff, one sign of that tight leash.

This is not to say that Bush is outside the modern norm. "Generally, this is the way it's been for the last three or four administrations," says James Pfiffner, a public-policy expert at George Mason University. The first President Bush "paid more attention to his Cabinet than most other presidents since Carter. But Clinton's ideas were run out of the White House."

Still, cabinet secretaries do matter. The top appointees can have input and round out the public face of the administration. They can also become lightning rods over controversial policies - either to the administration's detriment or, alternatively, shielding the president from criticism. Topping the list of such lightning rods is Attorney General John Ashcroft, an outspoken religious conservative whose role shot to the forefront after 9/11. Associates have been saying for months that he was ready to leave, after a bout of ill health; but following Bush's victory, he was rumored to be considering staying.

If he does leave, insiders have long thought former Deputy Attorney General Larry Thompson, a low-key professional, would be a likely choice to fill that spot. If confirmed, he'd be the nation's first African- American attorney general. But, referring to past rumor-mill "favorites" for the job, "it always ends up being someone else," says a Justice Department lawyer.

Other names being floated include UN Ambassador John Danforth (also a top name for secretary of State), White House counsel Alberto Gonzales, and Bush campaign chairman Marc Racicot. A more controversial pick would be former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, whose liberal social views would raise the ire of religious conservatives. As a possible contender for the 2008 GOP presidential nomination, he might benefit from a national platform as a cabinet secretary; he may also be in line to head the Department of Homeland Security.

The Defense and State departments also remain at the center of speculation. While Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld stirred controversy (and rumors of a swift departure) over his efforts to modernize the military, he became a fixture at Defense after 9/11 - and went on to survive the Abu Ghraib prison scandal. He is said to be energized by Bush's victory, looking to put some shine back in his image, and eager to see through the transition in Iraq.

If Mr. Rumsfeld were to leave, a top contender for his place is National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice. She has long talked about returning to Stanford University, but has reportedly expressed interest in the Pentagon over the State Department. Still, questions linger about her ability to oversee a large bureaucracy, after she was seen as having let "the boys" - Rumsfeld and his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz - run over her.

Another name on the list for Defense is Mr. Wolfowitz, though some observers think a confirmation hearing might be awkward, given his role in pushing for an invasion of Iraq to search for weapons of mass destruction that never turned up. Another post for him might be national security adviser (NSA), which does not require Senate confirmation, if Ms. Rice leaves. Other possibilities for NSA include Rice's deputy, Steve Hadley, and, until recently, Ambassador Robert Blackwill, a key Rice adviser on Iraq, who resigned from the National Security Council Friday.

At State, Secretary Powell was long seen as wanting to leave at the end of Bush's first term, in large part because he is seen as odd-man-out in an administration that has preferred military action over diplomacy. Now, there is speculation he may stay on for some months to get through the Iraq election and to avoid looking like a quitter.

If he does leave, possible replacements include Ambassador Danforth and Sen. Richard Lugar (R) of Indiana. A longer-shot might be former Sen. Sam Nunn of George, a Democrat. Bush is likely to keep the tradition of having a cabinet secretary from the opposing party, but more likely in a lower profile department.

Howard Lafranchi contributed to this report

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