- The Washington Times - Friday, January 12, 2001

President-elect George W. Bush yesterday named Elaine Chao, an immigrant from Taiwan and the wife of a Republican senator, to head the Labor Department.

"She brings to this post the qualities for which she has long been admired, strong executive talent, great compassion and a commitment to working people to live better lives," Mr. Bush said.

Mrs. Chao replaces Linda Chavez, who withdrew under fire two days earlier for her relationship with an illegal immigrant.

Mr. Bush also named Robert B. Zoellick, who worked in the State and Treasury departments in the Reagan and George Bush administrations, as U.S. trade representative.

Mrs. Chao had been among those originally considered for the nomination before Mr. Bush picked Mrs. Chavez, a TV commentator and conservative labor activist. Mrs. Chao is likely to be less controversial during her Senate confirmation process than Mrs. Chavez would have been, not least because she is the wife of Sen. Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican.

But beyond her Senate connection, Mrs. Chao has a distinguished record in her own right. She was deputy secretary of transportation under the president-elect's father and directed the Peace Corps as the former Soviet republics struggled to build independent societies. She also served in private industry as a vice president of Bank Americas Capital Markets Group and a fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington.

Labor unions have indicated that they will not wage a battle over Mrs. Chao welcome news for Mr. Bush, whose nominations for two other Cabinet posts are drawing heavy fire. Even before the illegal immigrant questions arose, Mrs. Chavez was facing fierce opposition from unions, worried about her conservative positions on affirmative action, the minimum wage and union organizing itself.

Two other Bush nominees are facing tough questions in the confirmation process: Attorney General-nominee John Ashcroft and Interior Secretary-nominee Gail Norton. Both nominees are under attack from liberals, who say they are too conservative to hold the key posts.

Mr. Bush yesterday played down those critics, and any damage done by the failure of the Chavez nomination.

"I never expected our nominees to sail through without harsh questioning and tough confirmation hearings," he said.

At a private strategy meeting of conservative leaders earlier this week, there was agreement that pushing Mrs. Chao would be a bonus for conservatives because it would be like a stick in the eye of one Senate Republican, John McCain of Arizona. Bush loyalists regard him as a nettlesome burr in the hide of the incoming administration.

The reason: Mr. McCain is insisting on making his version of campaign finance reform the first order of priority in the new Senate, even though Mr. Bush and many senior Republican lawmakers say it gives unfair advantage to organized labor. One of its most eloquent and powerful opponents is none other than Mr. McConnell, Mrs. Chao's husband.

"She's solid on all the key issues conservatives care about but without the paper trail that Chavez left with her extensive writings and speeches," said Grover Norquist, a conservative activist with close ties to some of Washington's most powerful Republicans.

"And Chao has something better than Ashcroft in a sense," Mr. Norquist said. "Ashcroft is a former senator but no longer in that chamber, but she is a woman, an Asian and married to one of the most powerful and toughest Republicans who is very much in the Senate Mitch McConnell.

"If some other senator from either party takes a nasty shot at her during confirmation, he knows he might find his favorite bill on hold for the rest of his life," he said.

Mr. Bush did not explain why he chose Mrs. Chao over other likely candidates. He met this week with Eloise Anderson, a key aide to Wisconsin Gov. Tommy G. Thompson in his landmark welfare reform effort. He was also reportedly considering former Rep. James M. Talent, Missouri Republican.

But a Republican close to the labor transition process told The Washington Times that there was one reason she prevailed over Mrs. Anderson, a black woman whom Mr. Bush interviewed twice. "If it was a close call between Anderson and Chao, then Chao's husband's clout would have made the difference, absolutely."

But those who have been watching Mrs. Chao's career progress over the years know that, despite her immaculately tailored look and ability to turn on a room-warming smile, there's more than a hint of flint in her eyes and sheath of steel in her determination.

Behind the scenes, for example, she ran what a transition adviser privately called a "heavy-handed" campaign for the transportation secretary post, casting herself as a competent, female Republican of Asian descent and against Norman Y. Mineta, as a competent male of Asian descent but a Democrat.

But Mr. Mineta prevailed in that contest and won Mr. Bush's backing for Transportation.

Mr. Zoellick, a former aide of James Baker, secretary of State and Treasury during the Bush administration, is well connected in diplomatic and trade circles. He helped Mr. Baker handle the U.S. response to German unification and is close to Pascal Lamy, the chief trade representative for the European Union.

"He is an experienced public servant, veteran diplomat, good negotiator, and a man of great skill and energy," Mr. Bush said.

Mr. Bush also put an end to long-standing speculation that he would downgrade the status of the trade representative position, saying that Mr. Zoellick would be a part of his Cabinet, the same status that President Clinton's trade representative enjoyed.

"He will report directly to me, he will be part of the Cabinet, and the reason the position needs to remain a Cabinet-level position is because of the importance of trade in the global economy," Mr. Bush said.

Mr. Bush's aides had been signaling that they would downgrade the position and give Commerce Secretary-nominee Donald L. Evans the lead role in trade issues, but that plan apparently displeased free-trade advocates in Congress.

Mr. Zoellick's nomination appeared to please members of Congress, who will have to vote on whether to restore the president's broad authority to make global trade deals, a power known as "fast track authority." That power lapsed under Mr. Clinton and was not re-enacted thanks to a coalition of Democrats suspicious of global trade treaties and Republicans worried that Mr. Clinton might commit the United States to disadvantageous trade and environmental conditions.

When at the State Department, Mr. Zoellick was a key official in working on the North American Free Trade Agreement and on fast-track issues.

"He'll bring tremendous amount of vision and experience to the job," said Sen. Charles E. Grassley, Iowa Republican and chairman of the Finance Committee. "By naming someone of Bob Zoellick's stature, President-elect Bush has underscored the importance of trade policy in his administration and to the country."

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