Lawrence Jackson, Associated Press
Mike Leavitt discusses his willingness to take on the challenge of heading the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services after President Bush on Monday announced his nomination to the post.

WASHINGTON — Former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt might be going from the frying pan into the fire with the announcement Monday that President Bush wants him to move from administering the Environmental Protection Agency to heading the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

"I've come to know Mike as a fine executive and as a man of great compassion," Bush said during a formal announcement of the nomination. "He is an ideal choice to lead one of the largest departments of the U.S. government."

If confirmed by the Senate — and there is no reason to suspect he won't be — Leavitt will be put in charge of a massive bureaucracy with a $548 billion budget and 66,639 employees.

And Bush has an ambitious agenda for Leavitt, who recently moved his wife and son, Westin, to Washington, D.C., following the November election.

"In this new term, we will implement the first-ever prescription drug benefit for seniors under Medicare," Bush said. "We will expand federal cooperation with faith-based groups that provide essential services, such as counseling and treatment for addictions. We will continue pursuing the great promise of medical research, always ensuring that the work is carried out with vigor and moral integrity. We will not relent in our efforts to protect the American people from disease and the use of disease as a weapon against us."

Leavitt would replace Tommy Thompson, a longtime Leavitt friend from their days as Republican governors, who resigned after Bush's first term.

During brief remarks at the White House, Leavitt said he was grateful for the privilege to serve in the Bush Cabinet but he regretted having to leave the EPA.

"It's an agency filled with dedicated people whom I have come to have great affection for and (with whom I) have a sense of shared importance and mission in protecting public health," Leavitt said. "The quality of health and the health condition of people in this nation is a commitment that is shared among both agencies, as is the connection between science and health."

The nomination came as somewhat of a surprise in the nation's Capitol, where Leavitt's name had been circulating as a possible secretary of the Department of Homeland Security — especially after Bush's last nominee for the post withdrew his nomination as news surfaced about unsavory aspects of his personal life.

Even after the announcement had been made that Leavitt would head HHS, conservative pundit Pat Buchanan speculated on MSNBC that Leavitt would be a good choice for Homeland Security because he had already gone through the "vetting" process and no skeletons were found in his closet.

Deseret Morning News graphicDNews graphicDept. of Health and Human Services timelineRequires Adobe Acrobat.

Leavitt was reportedly very interested in the homeland security job but was never interviewed for it by the president.

In fact, Leavitt's name has popped up from time to time as different Cabinet posts have become available. But Leavitt has always insisted he was happy at EPA and promised to unveil next month a major environmental agenda that would chart the administration's course for the next four years.

During a recent meeting with the Deseret Morning News editorial board, Leavitt said he was looking forward to continuing as EPA administrator. Leavitt's office did not return phone calls Monday, but Cabinet nominees rarely speak to the news media until confirmation hearings conclude.

But instead of pitching Bush's controversial "Clear Skies" initiative — a dead issue in Congress during the first Bush administration — Leavitt will be swinging at some of the hardest issues on Capitol Hill, among them Medicare and Medicaid reform, Social Security, the safety and affordability of prescription drugs, biomedical research and abortion funding.

And he'll take the fall if there aren't enough flu vaccines next year or if another popular drug like Vioxx that passed FDA muster is later deemed a danger to public health.

The Utah congressional delegation was effusive in its praise for the nomination, even suggesting Leavitt is much better suited for HHS than for EPA.

Deseret Morning News graphicDNews graphicEPA and HHS comparisonRequires Adobe Acrobat.

"Mike Leavitt will bring competence and compassion to the people's agency," said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, who has sponsored many of the bills that Leavitt will be implementing as HHS secretary.

"He's got some great challenges ahead, and HHS may be an unadministratable agency," Hatch told the Deseret Morning News. "But he can succeed by leaps and bounds. He is a good administrator, and he is a policy wonk. He is the perfect guy for that job."

Rep. Chris Cannon, R-Utah, praised Leavitt as the man with all the right qualifications for the job, whereas Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, called the nomination an honor for Utah.

"From welfare reform to implementing the new Medicare prescription drug plan, there is a lot we can accomplish for Utahns by working together in a bipartisan manner," Matheson said.

U.S. Sen. Bob Bennett believes Leavitt will face many challenges as he grapples with issues from "rising health-care costs to bringing Medicare, a 40-year-old program, into the 21st century."

"Mike Leavitt is motivated by challenges. He has proven himself as a visionary and talented administrator in Utah and with the EPA, and I agree with the president that he is ideally suited to address these concerns as head of HHS," Bennett said.

As governor, Leavitt used to bemoan the intransigence of federal bureaucrats who were slow or outright refused to grant waivers to the states to implement various welfare reforms. Now Leavitt will be the one the states come to for those waivers.

Hatch believes Leavitt will take a bipartisan approach to an agency with an entrenched bureaucracy that is resistant to change.

"It is one of the greatest bureaucracies in the world and left wing (of politics), but he has proven he will work with anybody," Hatch said. "I think there is a lot more room for bipartisanship at HHS than at EPA, where the far-left environmentalists control the issues."

Leavitt never really got his feet wet in the EPA job, although he was under increasing attacks by conservation groups for Bush environmental policies that allegedly have undermined long-standing protections.

Leavitt spokeswoman Cynthia Bergman said there has been no decline in environmental protection under Leavitt's watch.

"I don't know what they are referring to," Bergman said in a recent interview, "and yes, I am frustrated. These are broad-based allegations that aren't substantiated by the facts. They are scare tactics."

Bergman rattled off a list of EPA accomplishments, all of which involve tougher environmental protections, during Leavitt's short tenure. Among them are the first-ever emissions restrictions on mercury, new standards on pollutants called PM2.5 and tough enforcement of new ozone standards.

Leavitt visited 43 states in the past year on different environmental initiatives. He has visited the Great Lakes states about a dozen times to forge bipartisan partnerships on a comprehensive plan to clean up the lakes.

Bergman also pointed out Leavitt worked with a bipartisan coalition of Great Lakes lawmakers and local officials to secure federal funding to build a barrier to keep out the Asian carp, a serious threat to the Great Lakes ecosystem.

One of many partners in that effort was Chicago's Democratic Mayor Richard Daley.

"He has spent a lot of time up there building relationships, and it has been an across-the-board bipartisan effort," Bergman said. "The results speak for themselves up there."

Hatch said Leavitt will be most remembered at EPA for putting an end to the "screaming and shouting" that was tearing the agency apart. But Leavitt never really had the time as administrator to launch the kind of changes that would stamp the agency with a long-term legacy.

"But he has had them running on a steady course," Hatch said.

While Leavitt leaves behind the unrelenting barbs from the environmental community, he will undoubtedly now be the object of withering criticism from advocates for the poor and elderly. But he insists he is up for the challenge.

"I look forward to the implementation of the Medicare prescription drug program in 2006, medical liability reform and finding ways to reduce the cost of health care," he said in a speech accepting the nomination. "I'm persuaded that we can use technology and innovation to meet our most noble aspirations and not compromise our other values that we hold so dear."