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Energy, education, agriculture secretaries resigning

Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham, Education Secretary Rod Paige and Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman have told President Bush that they plan to resign, the White House  said Monday. 
U.S. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham addresses a joint news conference in Istanbul
Energy Secretary Spencer AbrahamReuters file
/ Source: news services

Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham, Education Secretary Rod Paige and Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman have told President Bush that they plan to resign, the White House said Monday. The news came as an even higher profile job — secretary of state — was opening up, with Colin Powell handing in his resignation as well.

Bush is working on a second-term Cabinet, and last week Attorney General John Ashcroft and Commerce Secretary Don Evans announced their resignations. The only new nominee so far is  White House legal counsel Alberto Gonzales as Ashcroft’s successor.

The resignations reported Monday bring to six the number of Cabinet members to announce resignations so far. Bush said after winning re-election that he expected some of his 15 Cabinet secretaries and White House staff to resign given the "burnout" factor.

Jockeying for energy
Abraham's tenure has been punctuated with record high crude oil and gasoline prices, and some energy experts say he has not done the best job explaining to the public how the administration plans to tackle the country's energy problems.

Some lobbyists have quietly questioned how much say Abraham has in shaping U.S. energy policy, claiming that Vice President Dick Cheney calls most of the shots on energy issues. The White House says that is not the case.

Names surfaced so far include:

  • Deputy energy secretary Kyle McSlarrow. He already runs the day-to-day operations of the department and is liked by lawmakers and Capitol Hill staff. McSlarrow also serves as the American co-chair of the U.S.-Russia Energy Working Group established by Presidents Bush and Vladimir Putin.
  • Retiring Democratic Sen. John Breaux of Louisiana, one of the few Senate Democrats to support Bush's plan to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Some Congressional sources said Breaux would likely take a job as an energy industry lobbyist where he could make much more money. Still, Breaux could be an attractive choice because the Senate tends to be more favorable to Cabinet nominees who were once a member of the chamber. That would be helpful to Bush, as the shrinking number of Senate Democrats are expected to criticize Bush's energy policies and give any new energy czar a hard time during the confirmation process.
  • Tom Kuhn, president of the Edison Electric Institute trade group.
  • U.S. ambassador to Mexico Tony Garza.

Who might replace Veneman?
The first woman to lead USDA, Veneman won praise for deft handling of the mad cow crisis last winter.

But according to some farm lobbyists there was some dissatisfaction with Veneman dating to the 2002 farm policy law. At a time when Congress wanted to expand crop subsidy spending, the administration suggested restraint in spending and more attention to land stewardship.

That fueled speculation among farm groups of a turnover at USDA and names that have surfaced include:

  • Farm trade negotiator Allen Johnson of the U.S. Trade Representative's office. He is pursuing the job, according to agribusiness sources.
  • White House agriculture advisor Chuck Conner, who also has been talking about the job.
  • Texas Rep. Charles Stenholm, a Democrat who was defeated after 13 terms in the House. "If Bush would pick him to be ag secretary, everybody would win," said Minnesota Rep. Collin Peterson, likely to succeed Stenholm as Democratic leader on the House Agriculture Committee.

Name floated to replace Paige
The leading candidate to replace Paige is Margaret Spellings, President Bush's domestic policy adviser who helped shape his school agenda when he was the Texas governor.

Paige, the nation's seventh education secretary, is the first black person to serve in the job. He grew up in segregated Mississippi and built a career on a belief that education equalizes opportunity, moving from college dean and school superintendent to education chief.

Paige is content to move on after overseeing Bush's aggressive education agenda for four years, said an administration official, who has spoken to him about his plans.

Paige, 71, has been an outspoken defender of No Child Left Behind, the law at the center of Bush's domestic agenda.

The law, which aims to get all children up to grade level in reading and math, has faced sustained criticism from state and school leaders who say they need more money and support. But Paige says schools are showing improvement among students who have long been overlooked.

Paige has had rocky moments, with none more glaring than when he called the National Education Association a "terrorist organization" in a private meeting with governors.

He apologized but maintained that the NEA, the nation's largest teachers union, uses "obstructionist scare tactics" in opposing the law. The union called for his resignation.

"I would hope the administration will ask the next secretary to have a better working relationship with the National Education Association," said NEA president Reg Weaver. Asked if he believes Bush will make such a gesture, Weaver said, "Absolutely."