More than 18 months from his expected departure date, speculation is already under way on Tommy Thompson's successor as HHS secretary.
In a speech earlier this month during the annual Wisconsin Republican Party convention, Thompson said it was unlikely he would continue in his position if President Bush wins re-election, and he would probably take a break from government service.
Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Mark McClellan and William Roper, who led the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention during the first Bush administration, have been mentioned as candidates, according to a Washington source. Roper is currently dean of the University of North Carolina School of Public Health in Chapel Hill. Spokesmen for both declined to comment directly on the matter.
Calls to the White House were not returned, but senior staff and Cabinet members have been told that they are expected to remain with the administration until after the 2004 election if Bush is re-elected. Otherwise, they will have to resign now, as press secretary Ari Fleischer and Environmental Protection Agency head Christie Whitman did last week.
Thompson's announcement comes amid a flurry of resignations at his agency during recent months. In February, Bobby Jindal left as assistant secretary for planning and evaluation at HHS to return to Louisiana, where it's expected he'll run for governor. The next month, HHS Inspector General Janet Rehnquist announced her pending resignation amid allegations of professional misconduct. And last month, Ruben King-Shaw Jr. resigned as deputy administrator at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.
The secretary's recent announcement took people by surprise only for its timing but not its substance. "Except for the last administration (Clinton's), it's rare that HHS secretaries stay in the cabinet for four years," said Chip Kahn, president of the Federation of American Hospitals, which represents investor-owned hospitals.
When Thompson became HHS secretary two years ago, it was widely known that the position that Thompson originally wanted in the Bush cabinet was at the Transportation Department. "But the president thought he'd be a good leader at HHS because of what he did in Wisconsin," including reforming the welfare system there and expanding the state's Medicaid program, said Richard Davidson, president of the American Hospital Association.