Bush names Leavitt health secretary

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President Bush yesterday made the ninth new appointment for his second-term Cabinet, naming EPA Administrator Michael O. Leavitt to head the Department of Health and Human Services, a nomination that met with bipartisan approval on Capitol Hill.

But in a continuation of the exodus of high-level officials from the Bush administration, NASA Director Sean O’Keefe announced that he would be stepping down after three years of running the nation’s troubled space program.

The administration also continued an effort to replace its nomination to head the Department of Homeland Security, former New York City Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik, who withdrew his name after a slew of scandals arose, including published reports that he had two extramarital affairs.

Mr. Leavitt, a former governor of Utah, had been administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency for less than a year. If approved by the Senate, he would succeed Tommy G. Thompson, who recently resigned as HHS secretary.

The president praised his nominee at a White House announcement yesterday, calling him “a man of great compassion.”

“He’s an ideal choice to lead one of the largest departments of the United States government,” Mr. Bush said.

The agency has a budget of more than $500 billion and 67,000 employees. The HHS secretary oversees Medicare and Medicaid, the mammoth government health programs for the elderly, poor and disabled, as well as the Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institutes of Health and the Indian Health Service.

“I look forward … to the implementation of the Medicare prescription-drug program in 2006, medical-liability reform and finding ways to reduce the cost of health care,” Mr. Leavitt said in the Roosevelt Room. “I am persuaded that we can use technology and innovation to meet our most noble aspirations and not compromise our other values that we hold so dear.”

Mr. Leavitt, 53, is viewed favorably among the rank and file at HHS, especially because of his track record on family issues. As Utah’s governor for 11 years, he and his wife actively promoted marriage in Utah, and he is expected to be a vocal advocate for the department’s family-strengthening activities, including lobbying for pro-marriage grant programs, said an HHS official who asked not to be named.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, said, “I welcome Mike Leavitt’s nomination.”

“He knows firsthand many of the major issues he’ll be facing at HHS, and he brings the perceptions of a former governor who has seen health and human services programs in action. I look forward to working with him on health reform and many other challenges facing the nation,” Mr. Kennedy said.

Sen. Michael B. Enzi, Wyoming Republican, also applauded the nomination of Mr. Leavitt.

“He has shown his leadership abilities and willingness to work with all parties during his time at the EPA as well as when he served Wyoming’s neighbor, Utah, as their governor. I anticipate a positive and informative confirmation hearing,” Mr. Enzi said.

Meanwhile, Mr. O’Keefe yesterday announced that he is leaving the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. He is reportedly under consideration to become the $500,000-a-year chancellor of Louisiana State University’s main campus in Baton Rouge.

Mr. O’Keefe’s tenure as NASA’s administrator included the loss of the shuttle Columbia and its seven astronauts as well as budget battles and debates over the future of American space travel. Still, he won praise from the White House.

“Administrator O’Keefe has previously indicated to us that he is planning on leaving,” said White House spokesman Scott McClellan. “The president believes he has done a great job over at NASA.”

According to sources familiar with discussions for his replacement, Air Force Lt. Gen. Ronald Kadish, who directed the effort to develop a system to shield the country from a missile attack, is at the top of the list. Others include former shuttle astronauts Ron Sega, Charles Bolden and Robert Crippen.

Although Mr. O’Keefe has embraced a new space effort, envisioned by Mr. Bush, that would send manned missions to the moon and Mars, the space program has been eclipsed by other pressing needs, including the war in Iraq and tax cuts.

The administration is moving more slowly to replace Mr. Kerik as the nominee to head the Homeland Security Department after Tom Ridge resigned. Among candidates were Asa Hutchison, the undersecretary of homeland security; Frances Fragos Townsend, the White House homeland-security adviser; and the former chief of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Joe M. Allbaugh. Also reportedly in the running is Sen. Joe Lieberman, Connecticut Democrat.

Mr. Kerik abruptly withdrew Friday night, citing immigration problems with a family housekeeper. But the New York Daily News reported yesterday that Mr. Kerik had simultaneously conducted two extramarital affairs. There also were reports about connections he had to a construction company with reputed ties to organized crime.

A candidate for replacing Mr. Leavitt as EPA administrator was the chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, James Connaughton.

Cheryl Wetzstein and Amy Fagan contributed to this report.

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