Mineta saved by illness

Robert Novak

2/1/2003 12:00:00 AM - Robert Novak
WASHINGTON -- According to high-level administration sources, Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta was scheduled to follow former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill as the second Cabinet member to be fired by President Bush until illness landed him in Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Mineta, a 71-year-old former congressman from California, is the only Democrat in Bush's Cabinet. He was saved from dismissal when a staph infection followed surgery last August to relieve persistent back pain, hospitalizing him for several weeks. He was operated on again Jan. 24, and remains at Walter Reed at this writing. Although Transportation officials say Mineta runs the department from his hospital bed, the work is really being done by Deputy Secretary Michael Jackson (a protege and former aide of White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card). DISCOURTEOUS DEMOCRATS Reps. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio and Jesse Jackson Jr. of Illinois led the way in discourteous reaction by Democrats to President Bush's State of the Union address to the joint session of Congress Tuesday night. Seated next to each other, Kucinich and Jackson spent much of the speech whispering and exchanging notes, hardly ever rising or applauding the president. Kucinich, who says he may run for president, rose and clapped when Bush promised health care for all and motioned to Jackson to stand up. However, the Chicago congressman stayed seated, continued to take notes and did not clap. Jackson finally applauded when Bush called for fighting AIDS in Africa. He also rose when Bush, asserting that "we are winning" the war against terrorism, talked about hunting down al Qaeda. The only members of Congress who kept their seats in reaction to that presidential statement were Kucinich and Rep. Corrine Brown of Florida. BUSH'S SALES JOB The White House has grown more optimistic that Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania will be supportive on tort reform after a long conversation with George W. Bush on the president's recent flight to Scranton, Pa. They discussed Pennsylvania's medical malpractice problems, and the president reported back he felt the senator will help. Specter, the Senate Judiciary Committee's third ranking Republican, has been considered resistant to tort reform. His son, Shanin Specter, is one of Philadelphia's leading personal injury lawyers. Arlen Specter's top political donors include litigators. However, facing a potential Republican primary election challenge from conservative Rep. Patrick Toomey, Specter needs to stay in the good graces of the White House. GOP LEFT REVOLT On the day of President Bush's State of the Union address, Rep. Mike Castle of Delaware assembled the liberal Republican Main Street Partnership that he heads to confront the House GOP leadership of Speaker Dennis Hastert and Majority Leader Tom DeLay. Castle, a former governor of Delaware, claims to represent some 60 Republican House members concerned about DeLay's assertiveness as the new majority leader. Castle has complained about a $50,000 contribution by DeLay's political action committee to the conservative Club for Growth, which has challenged Republican incumbents. In 2002, it targeted Rep. Wayne Gilchrest of Maryland but failed to defeat him. A footnote: Members of Castle's group are particularly irritated that Rep. Christopher Shays of Connecticut, a co-sponsor of the campaign finance reform act, was passed over as chairman of the House Government Reform Committee though he was next in seniority. LEAHY'S COMPLAINT Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the former Senate Judiciary Committee chairman who is now the panel's ranking Democrat, complained that he was not given sufficient notice of Wednesday's confirmation hearing on three proposed appellate court judges nominated by President Bush early in 2001. The hearing was originally set for May 23, 2001, but was cancelled when the Democrats took control of the Senate and Leahy became Judiciary chairman. A footnote: In a party line vote Thursday, the committee sent to the Senate floor Washington, D.C., lawyer Miguel Estrada's nomination as a District of Columbia circuit court judge. He had been blocked since 2001 by Judiciary's Democrats. Republicans are anxious to get Estrada on the appellate bench to position him for possible early appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court.