Bush picks Chao for Labor post

He moves quickly after nomination of Chavez is derailed

Confirmation seen likely

Foreign policy adviser Zoellick is choice for trade representative

January 12, 2001|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Moving swiftly to plug a hole in his Cabinet, President-elect George W. Bush named former Peace Corps director Elaine Chao to be his labor secretary yesterday.

Chao replaces Bush's earlier choice for the job, Linda Chavez, who withdrew her name from consideration Tuesday after disclosures involving an illegal Guatemalan immigrant who lived in her house during the early 1990s.

Bush also selected Robert Zoellick to be the U.S. trade representative, which will remain a Cabinet-level position.

Chao and Zoellick, both 47, are Washington veterans who held a variety of high-level jobs in the administrations of Ronald Reagan and Bush's father. Both are also likely to gain Senate confirmation with little difficulty.

"I sure hope so," Chao said, prompting smiles from Bush and Vice President-elect Dick Cheney. She is the wife of Sen. Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican.

In contrast to the Chavez nomination, which drew an immediate and harsh response from leaders of organized labor, Chao's selection was greeted with what appeared to be an olive branch from AFL-CIO President John Sweeney.

In a statement notable mainly for its absence of any negative comments, Sweeney said the labor federation "will certainly support" any nominee who favors cooperation among labor, management and the government to keep the economy strong. He also noted, as did Chao, that they had served together on the board of the United Way of America, which she headed in the early 1990s.

In announcing his latest nominees, Bush made no reference to the controversy that brought down Chavez. But to a reporter's question about liberal opposition to John Ashcroft, his choice for attorney general, Bush said he never expected "smooth sailing" for all his nominees.

Ashcroft will face "a lot of tough questioning" at his confirmation hearings, which begin Tuesday, Bush acknowledged. But he staunchly defended his nominee as a "good man" with "a good heart" and urged senators to "tone down their rhetoric."

This week, Sen. Barbara Boxer, a liberal California Democrat, became the first senator to announce that she would vote against the Ashcroft nomination. But Senate Republican leader Trent Lott of Mississippi has predicted that all 50 Republican senators would vote for Ashcroft, enough to guarantee his confirmation.

Bush responded heatedly to criticism of a 1996 speech by Interior Secretary-designate Gale Norton, in which she said the United States had "lost too much" in the Civil War, because the South's defeat set back the cause of states' rights.

In that speech, to a conservative group that shared her views on the need to curb excessive federal regulation, Norton said, "We certainly had bad facts in that case where we were defending state sovereignty by defending slavery."

Bush called Norton's remarks "a ridiculous interpretation of what's in her heart," adding that "in no way, shape or form" was she "talking about any value to slavery." He called it an example of "what happens in this town" when "special interests" try "to tear people down."

Shared philosophy

Bush went on to say that he was "amazed" that Norton had been criticized for advocating oil exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, since he had taken that position during the presidential campaign.

"Guess who else thinks we ought to [drill there], in order to make sure we've got enough energy for the nation? The president-elect!" Bush said. "It shouldn't surprise people that I've picked people that share a philosophy with me."

Environmentalists strongly oppose opening the refuge to drilling, which can happen only if Congress approves. That appears unlikely, since previous attempts to win congressional approval were defeated at a time when Republicans had more strength in both the House and Senate.

As Bush prepared to fly home to Texas for the last time before his inauguration next week, he laughed off recent comments by President Clinton that seemed to shed doubt on the legitimacy of the incoming administration.

Speaking at two Democratic events this week, Clinton indicated that he thought Vice President Al Gore had won and that "the only way [Bush] could win the election was to stop the voting in Florida."

Bush began by repeating his campaign's standard line that he had won the recount "three or four times." He added: "I was always worried about the revote. But when they counted the ballots in the state of Florida, I won."

As for Clinton, "he can say what he wants to say," Bush said. "But January the 20th, I'll be honored to be sworn in as the president."

Washington veterans

Chao, the new choice for labor secretary, occupied top positions in government and private industry over the past two decades.

Besides running the Peace Corps under Bush's father, she also held the No. 2 job at the Transportation Department. She was brought into the government during the Reagan administration by Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Dole and later became chairman of the Federal Maritime Administration.

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