Inside Report: Bush's errant nominees

Posted: Jan 20, 2001 12:00 AM
WASHINGTON -- The confirmation testimony last Wednesday by John Ashcroft (attorney general) and Paul O'Neill (Treasury) exasperated President-elect Bush's high command. Former Sen. Ashcroft's desire to soften tough questioning from pro-choice members of the Senate Judiciary Committee led him to assert that Bush planned no changes in abortion policy. Bush advisers worry that Ashcroft has tied himself up on the abortion issue and wish that, in his testimony, he had deferred to the desires of the new president. The mistake by O'Neill, a federal bureaucrat-turned-corporate CEO, was much worse. The Bush high command was flabbergasted when it learned O'Neill told the Senate Finance Committee that Bush's proposed tax cuts would not do much toward reviving the economy. O'Neill has not yet figured out that he is supposed to represent the president's views, Bush advisers said. CLINTON'S DELAY President-elect Bush had to make several unanswered requests to President Clinton's aides before finally arranging for the traditional coffee interlude between the new and old presidents at the White House, before heading up Pennsylvania Avenue together to the Capitol for the Inauguration. Harassed Bush aides felt the delay reflected a desire by the Clinton team to be unpleasant. But failure to act promptly on routine requests actually follows a Clinton pattern that became familiar over the last eight years. A footnote: At the first session of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee attended by Sen. Hillary Clinton, a senior Republican senator Wednesday tested the report that it is impossible to make eye contact with her. He said the report turned out to be true. APPRENTICE CABINET MEMBERS Two of President-elect Bush's best politically connected nominees for high office -- former Sen. Spencer Abraham for secretary of energy and Mitch Daniels for Office of Management and Budget director -- face the steepest learning curve in their new jobs, according to government insiders. Abraham, who has held a variety of political offices including state party chairman, was defeated for re-election in Michigan last year after a campaign in which he received nationwide Republican support. He has no particular experience in the energy field, but Bush was eager to find a Cabinet slot for him, and the Energy Department was open. Daniels was an ace Washington political operative for 10 years before becoming a top executive at Eli Lilly in Indianapolis a decade ago. But he has little experience with or knowledge of the complicated budget process, for which he will now be responsible. SUBSIDIZING PROTESTS All 18 liberal organizations participating in a Jan. 9 press conference that attacked John Ashcroft's nomination as attorney general received a combined $150 million in government funding from 1996 to 1999, according to Census Bureau figures. Planned Parenthood, which has paid for its own newspaper ads assailing Ashcroft, received more government money than any other group: $27.3 million. The other foes of Ashcroft receiving the federal subsidies include the National Education Association, the Sierra Club and the NAACP. A footnote: The National Resources Defense Council, which leads the fight against Gale Norton's confirmation as secretary of the interior, received $275,000 in government money in 1999. Other federally funded groups opposing Norton include Friends of the Earth and the Sierra Club. DOUBLE GENERATION GAP In a recent meeting with Republicans, George W. Bush approached the GOP's senior senator -- 98-year-old Strom Thurmond of South Carolina -- to tell him that a double generation gap separated them. He noted that Thurmond had served in the Senate with the president-elect's grandfather, Prescott Bush (who represented Connecticut in 1952-1963). Thurmond was first elected in 1954. A footnote: Republicans were delighted when Thurmond, characteristically, embraced Sen. Hillary Clinton on the day she took the oath. They welcome vitality shown by the oldest senator in the nation's history. A vacancy in the final two years of Thurmond's term would be filled by Democratic Gov. Jim Hodges.