Thompson resigning as secretary of health and human resources

Friday, December 3rd 2004, 8:44 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson resigned Friday, warning of a potential global outbreak of the flu and health-related terror attacks. ``For the life of me, I cannot understand why the terrorists have not attacked our food supply because it is so easy to do,'' he said.

Thompson, the eighth member of Bush's 15-member Cabinet to resign since the Nov. 2 election, said he tried to leave office a year ago, but stayed through Bush's re-election campaign at the request of the White House.

``It's time for me and my family to move on to the next chapter in our life,'' he said.

News of his departure came not long after Bush introduced former New York City police commissioner Bernard Kerik as Tom Ridge's successor to be secretary of homeland security.

As for Thompson's successor, the secretary had not yet stepped before the microphones when officials said Mark McClellan, the Medicare chief and brother of White House press secretary Scott McClellan, was Bush's likely choice to take over the sprawling HHS bureaucracy.

Thompson said McClellan would make ``a great secretary.'' But he also dropped the names of several other potential candidates, including former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

Thompson listed accomplishments of his tenure but also said he worries about a worldwide flu pandemic in an era when vaccine is in short supply.

Thompson, who served 14 years as Wisconsin governor, said he plans to explore private sector jobs and expressed an interest in advancing health care causes across the globe. He also didn't rule out a return to elective office.

``That's entirely possible. I happen to love politics. Why would I say no? There's a Senate seat open,'' he said. Democratic Sen. Herb Kohl's term expires in 2006.

Thompson said he intends to serve until Feb. 4 or until the Senate confirms his successor.

As for Bush's homeland security nominee, Kerik is the former military man who helped New York get back on its feet after the Sept. 11 terror attack.

``Bernie Kerik is one of the most accomplished and effective leaders of law enforcement in America,'' Bush said at the White House, standing at his nominee's side.

Kerik said what he witnessed in the days after the attacks would be etched in his mind if he were confirmed to lead the department. ``I know what is at stake,'' he said.

``Both the memory of those courageous souls and the horrors I saw inflicted upon our proud nation will serve as permanent reminders of the awesome responsibility you place in my charge,'' he said.

Bush also lost his ambassador to the United Nations, John Danforth, who is retiring.

Friday's White House announcement ceremony _ this time for Kerik _ has become a ritual as Bush rounds out a Cabinet for his second term. He stood in the Roosevelt Room with Kerik, as the nominee's wife and some of their children looked on.

Joe Allbaugh, the former FEMA director who was mentioned as a candidate for the job, said Kerik will ``be drinking water from a fire hose for quite a while, but I know he's up to the challenge.''

Former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, Kerik's boss in city government and later at a private consulting firm, told The Associated Press the former undercover detective would surprise many within the sprawling bureaucracy of homeland security.

``When you see him, he's a big strong guy and a black belt,'' said Giuliani. ``What you get to know when you work with him is how smart he is ... how effective and sophisticated a manager he is.''

Rep. Christopher Cox, R-Calif., chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said, ``There is no doubt that Bernie is a strong, no-nonsense manager who is intimately familiar with the homeland security mission.''

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, chairwoman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said her panel would conduct confirmation hearings as swiftly as possible.

A military policeman in South Korea in the 1970s, Kerik's first anti-terrorism work was as a private security worker in Saudi Arabia. He joined the New York Police Department in 1986, first walking a beat in Times Square when it was still a haven for small-time hustlers.

He eventually was tapped to lead the city's corrections department, and was appointed police commissioner in 2000.

Kerik inherits a new and sprawling bureaucracy. The creation of the department in 2003 combined 22 disparate federal agencies with more than 180,000 employees and a combined budget of $36 billion. The organization has faced criticism ranging from the coordination of finances to computer systems.