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Bush under pressure to name staff, get moving

©Los Angeles Times, published December 14, 2000


WASHINGTON -- George W. Bush says he has chosen the top people he wants to run the White House and key Cabinet departments. Aides in Austin, Texas, indicated Wednesday that he could announce a number of top White House staffing appointments this week.

But the drastically shortened time he has to put the rest of his team in place, map out his agenda and establish himself as the United States' new leader threatens to undercut his presidency seriously.

In the less than six weeks that remain before he takes the oath of office, Bush is under extraordinary pressure to craft a new budget, create a detailed legislative agenda and get on with the arduous process of selecting qualified, scandal-proof people for the more than 1,000 leadership posts in the executive branch that require presidential nomination and Senate confirmation.

While doing all that, Bush and his transition team -- which so far consists of Vice President-elect Dick Cheney, longtime Bush aide Clay Johnson, 75 employees and 20 volunteers working at offices in suburban Washington -- need to build bridges to Democrats, tread gingerly on the turf of Washington Republicans and build the legitimacy that Bush needs to govern.

"There are a series of symbolic ceremonial actions that Bush has not engaged in -- receiving phone calls from foreign dignitaries, visiting the White House for face-to-face briefings, visiting the leadership at the Capitol," said Norman J. Ornstein, who heads a transition-to-governing project funded by Pew Charitable Trusts. "It's important to the public for the process of legitimizing the victor."

The Bush team also has lost significant time needed to put together a new federal budget, due to be submitted to Congress Feb. 1. Not only have Bush aides not had access to all the budget numbers, materials and databases maintained by the Office of Management and Budget but -- without a team of economic, political and foreign policy advisers in place -- there is no one positioned to put together the contours of the budget.

Overshadowing everything else is the daunting job of juggling a mountain of resumes, egos, and competitors for administration posts.

Bush transition spokesman Ari Fleischer said that as of Monday the team had received 19,874 resumes. But beyond assembling databases to manage the mounds of paperwork and collecting almost $3-million in donations to the thus far privately funded transition effort, the office has been able to undertake little else.

To jump-start the process, Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, told Cheney during a meeting that Republican leaders are prepared to make congressional staff available on a temporary basis to assist in the transition.

"One of the things this president-elect and vice president-elect have to face is that they lost 40 days of transition time," said Craig. "That's time you don't make up. We've investigated the law (to check propriety): We can detail anyone to offer expertise to help expedite the transition. He (Cheney) was obviously very pleased that all of a sudden there is this vast talent pool that can literally be there overnight."

Bush aides say they think they know who they want for 15 or 20 of the top 30 or so presidential appointments needed to get the new administration off the ground.

But Bush aides have not begun investigating all the potential nominees, even for their own purposes. Many of the people they most want in the administration were reluctant to open themselves to the intense scrutiny of federal background checks without a concrete job offer in hand.

Some top positions already have been decided. Bush has said that Andrew Card, transportation secretary in his father's administration, would be his White House chief of staff. Bush aides have all but confirmed that retired Army Gen. Colin L. Powell would be named secretary of state and that Condoleezza Rice would be named national security adviser.

But even for those top positions, the official appointment process -- formal FBI checks, financial disclosures and Senate approval -- can take several months.

And often the confirmation of nominees to fill less visible posts takes even more time.

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