Dispatches > The Buzz

Flash Traffic

Political buzz from Washington

Issue: "The $10 billion gamble," April 6, 2002

Health issues have not been a front-burner issue in the Bush presidency, with the exception of the controversy over embryo-destroying stem-cell research, but TeamBush has cautiously pursued its nominations to health posts that deal with divisive social issues. President Bush put an end to some of the mystery last week by nominating Dr. Elias Zerhouni to be the new leader of the National Institutes of Health, a job that's been vacant since Dr. Harold Varmus resigned two years ago. Reporters wondered whether Zerhouni, a 50-year-old native of Algeria, had to pass a stem-cell "litmus test," and the president did declare that the two men shared the view that "human life is precious and should not be exploited or destroyed for the benefit of others." The American Life League, the pro-life group with the least admiration for TeamBush, questioned that claim, since in his work at Johns Hopkins University, Zerhouni helped establish the Institute for Cell Engineering, which is exploring new stem-cell therapies. The Zerhouni nomination may move quickly through the Senate, where liberal Maryland Sen. Barbara Mikulski is an early booster despite the "litmus test" talk. The president also named a new surgeon general, Dr. Richard Carmona, who will move to Washington from Tucson, Ariz. Carmona is a trauma surgeon who in 1985 created the first trauma-care system in southern Arizona, but reporters loved the more cinematic details of his biography. A former Army Green Beret, Carmona also is a sheriff's deputy. In 1992 he dangled out of a helicopter to rescue a crash survivor trapped on a cliff. Carmona, 52, won the national "Top Cops" award in 2000 after he responded to a traffic accident that evolved into a gunfight with a suspected murderer, who was shot and killed. Carmona's scalp was grazed by a bullet in that fight, his second wound in the same place. He received the first wound while fighting in Vietnam. At the White House announcement, Carmona thanked the president in English and Spanish: "As a high-school dropout, a poor Hispanic kid, to be where I am today was just nothing you could even dream about."

Conservative Republicans on Capitol Hill are frustrated with President Bush's signing off campaign-finance legislation for one less-reported reason: the potential for more trouble when a Supreme Court vacancy opens. Since any Supreme Court ruling on the "landmark" McCain-Feingold legislation could be close, even a tight 5-4 vote, wouldn't the next nominee's views on campaign restrictions become another hot potato for Democrats? If the nominee disagrees with the view that passed the Senate 60-40, will he or she be defined as "out of the mainstream?" The issue also may bedevil any rumored consideration of White House Counsel Al Gonzales. Would TeamBush appreciate a Senate inquiry into whether the counsel's office advised Bush that the campaign-finance bill was unconstitutional before he signed it? If the office did, couldn't that be another black mark for Democrats considering Gonzales?

Despite pressure from Republicans to stay in the House and much deliberation, Rep. Bob Ehrlich declared his intention to run for governor of Maryland, an office held by the Democrats for 35 years, although current Gov. Parris Glendening barely defeated GOP nominee Ellen Sauerbrey in 1994. Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, the Democratic front-runner and eldest daughter of Robert F. Kennedy, is polling below the magic 50 percent mark in an early Mason-Dixon poll-in both a Democratic primary matchup with Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley (who hasn't announced he's running yet) and in a general election matchup with Ehrlich. National GOP strategists are worried that Ehrlich's run creates another open-seat headache in the effort to maintain the thin Republican House majority. Both Sauerbrey and former Rep. Helen Delich Bentley are considering a run for the Ehrlich seat, which would likely be a nasty race, since the two women battled each other fiercely eight years ago for the governor's race nod.

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