CongressNow: How Would McCain Fill His Cabinet? Here Are Some Names

Posted September 1, 2008 at 4:27pm

The Republicans have already been in power for eight years in the White House, but if Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) wins the presidency, he’ll still have plenty of folks seeking top government jobs in late 2008. Here are some who might snag Cabinet slots for domestic policies. National security and economic Cabinet posts are covered elsewhere in this series.

Attorney General. Any attorney general nominee McCain names is expected to face a blistering confirmation fight, with Senate Democrats, likely emboldened by electoral gains, seeking answers on such issues as warrantless surveillance, torture and the alleged political hiring at the Justice Department. This should force McCain to look beyond Justice officials who served under former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.

The McCain campaign in May announced a Justice Advisory Committee to counsel him on federal judicial vacancies, led by two staunch conservatives: former Solicitor General Ted Olson and Sen. Sam Brownback (Kan.).

Olson — a respected legal mind but also a partisan figure in Democrats’ eyes — could face significant Democratic opposition if he were nominated for attorney general, mirroring what he faced when he was nominated for solicitor general by President Bush. Brownback, a lawyer by training who launched a short-lived presidential campaign this cycle, is a favorite of social conservatives, whose support McCain will need if he is to win on Election Day. Brownback, who is retiring from the Senate in 2010, is expected to run for governor that year if he isn’t named attorney general.

A.B. Culvahouse Jr., a former Reagan White House counsel, has been a top adviser to the McCain campaign and is another private-practice attorney who could fit the bill. So might Eugene Scalia, son of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and a former Labor Department solicitor.

McCain does not have particularly close ties to the Washington legal community and might follow the model of appointing either an adviser from outside Washington or a Senate colleague.

Sens. John Cornyn (Texas), Orrin Hatch (Utah) and Lindsey Graham (S.C.) would likely receive a degree of Senatorial deference if nominated. All three sit on the Judiciary Committee and hail from states with Republican governors, thus enabling the GOP to keep their seats after an appointment. Cornyn is a former Texas Supreme Court justice and state attorney general. Graham is a close confidant of McCain, and he has echoed McCain’s criticisms of U.S. interrogation policy.

Former Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating, an early McCain backer and co-chairman of the National Catholics for McCain Committee, is another strong contender. He was associate attorney general in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations, following service as an FBI agent and prosecutor. Keating is now head of the American Council of Life Insurers, but he is not dismissing interest. “I have always had a special affection for the Justice Department,” he said in an interview. His experience handling the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing would also suggest the Department of Homeland Security as a potential destination.

Another potential attorney general who would need to give up a fat Washington salary is ex-Montana Gov. Marc Racicot, a former national GOP chairman who now heads the American Insurance Association. And Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, a former state attorney general, has been a leading McCain supporter. However, Crist has been in office for only two years and may want to serve at least one full term.

Secretary of Health and Human Services. Mark McClellan has a perfect pedigree for a Republican: head of the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services under President Bush. Meanwhile, former Sen. Jim Talent (Mo.) was active on health care issues, not just in the Senate but also in the House and the Missouri Legislature.

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal has the policy chops to head HHS, but he’s considered unlikely to leap at the job, considering that he has only one year under his belt as governor and a lengthy agenda to enact for his hurricane-recovering state.

Education Secretary. Lisa Graham Keegan, the former Arizona superintendent of Public Instruction, is a top education adviser to McCain, as is Phil Handy, former chairman of the Florida State Board of Education.

School chiefs from large cities have historically offered presidents a talent pool for Education secretary, and for this particular job, party identification is not as important as it is for other Cabinet slots. Thus, some of the same names Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) would likely consider could also get attention from McCain: Arne Duncan, the chief executive officer of the Chicago Public Schools; Paul Vallas, superintendent of New Orleans’ Recovery School District; and Joel Klein, New York City schools chancellor.

In addition, Crist served as the elected education commissioner in Florida earlier in his career and could return to that field if he is inclined to make the leap.

Labor Secretary. McCain may look to a number of industry lobbyists and Labor Department officials from previous Republican administrations. Some of the names in play are Randel Johnson, a vice president at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and William Kilberg, who served as Labor Department solicitor during the Ford administration. Both men are advising the McCain campaign on labor issues.

McCain may also consider Eugene Scalia; George Salem, who was solicitor of Labor during the Reagan administration; and Lawrence Lorber, the deputy assistant Labor secretary and director of the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs during the Ford administration.

If he could be persuaded to leave the top slot at the National Association of Manufacturers, former Michigan Gov. John Engler could also be a contender.

Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. This job is hard to handicap because Democrats are the stronger party in most urban centers, where the department targets much of its attention. However, the housing meltdown and the subsequent assigning of extra missions to HUD subsidiaries could inspire the appointment of someone with special expertise in housing and mortgage policy. No names have gained wide currency yet, however.

Transportation Secretary. One governor above all is closely identified with transportation: Minnesota’s Tim Pawlenty, because of his handling of the aftermath of the Minneapolis bridge collapse. Despite praise for his early efforts after the collapse, the state Legislature reversed his veto of a key transportation bill, a policy loss that could dull his luster for the job.

Former Kansas Gov. Bill Graves, now head of the American Trucking Associations, would be a natural for the job, and Engler could be in the mix as well.

Agriculture Secretary. A former Senate staffer suggested that McCain could buck the trend of tapping an agriculture-state governor because he’s strongly opposed to the subsidies that are popular among farmers. He could well choose someone with a free-trade background and experience in reforming agricultural policy. Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.), a leading fiscal conservative who pushed a bill to dramatically overhaul farm subsidies, would fit the bill, though he could also be a candidate to head the Office of Management and Budget or another department.

A more conventional route would be to tap a farm-state governor, including Nebraska’s Dave Heineman, who succeeded Mike Johanns, another Republican governor who was tapped as Agriculture secretary; and Georgia’s Sonny Perdue.

Interior Secretary. At the moment, there are relatively few Republican governors in the West who might be able to make the switch — Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., for example, is poised to win a second term in November and could hardly turn around and leave for D.C. — and several prominent Western Republican Senators are not an option, including retiring Pete Domenici (N.M.), who is ailing from a brain disease, and Larry Craig (Idaho), who’s leaving after a sex scandal.

That leaves former Wyoming Gov. Jim Geringer as a possibility. If McCain decides to tap a fellow Senator, he could choose Utah Sen. Bob Bennett or retiring Sen. Wayne Allard (Colo.).

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator. An industry lobbyist said that “McCain is not the type of guy that a lot of people in industry care for,” especially since they see him as “hard to read” on global warming policy. McCain would face pressure to pick someone who would “moderate” his call — which has been echoed by Democrats — for tough emissions reductions. Based on his campaign, “he seems to really value corporate figures,” a Congressional GOP staffer said, though no names have surfaced yet.

A Senate insider skilled at steering legislation would be one possibility, such as Sen. Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), who serves on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Among governors, Charlie Crist, who’s taken a moderate-to-liberal line on the environment, especially global warming, could also find a home at EPA.

Energy Secretary. Rep. Heather Wilson (N.M.), who lost a primary for Senate and will be looking for a job this fall, could be rewarded for her work as a McCain supporter with a Cabinet slot. She serves on the Energy and Commerce Committee, making DOE a possibility.

As for governors, Linda Lingle (Hawaii) has been an activist on energy, particularly on research into renewable energy. Now, six years into her tenure, she might be willing to make the long leap to Washington.

Charlene Carter, Geof Koss, Stephen Langel and Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.