Senators on the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee were somewhat surprised on Tuesday when Dr. Elias Zerhouni, a vice dean at the Johns Hopkins University Medical School, was announced as President Bush’s nominee to run the National Institutes of Health. “It wasn’t the pick we were anticipating,” says a Republican committee staffer.
The name they were expecting was that of Dr. Anthony Fauci, currently the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at NIH. “We’ve been told for months that Fauci was their guy,” says the committee staffer. “Zerhouni appears to be a fine choice. He just wasn’t the name we’d been hearing.”
Fauci is best known for his active role in the debate over HIV and AIDS in the mid- to late-1980s. He spearheaded a national debate and became a lightning rod for AIDS activists who didn’t believe the federal government was doing enough. Fauci’s blunt personality and political style didn’t please everyone, particularly conservatives in the Reagan and first Bush administrations. “He didn’t make anyone happy, which was probably a good sign,” says a former colleague of Fauci’s at NIH. “But he did a great job raising awareness of infectious diseases, and he’s continued to do a great job there.”
It’s unclear why Fauci didn’t get the head NIH job. Indications are he was at the top of the Bush administration’s list of nominees before September 11, and that the job was offered to him at least once. He turned it down.
After September 11, Fauci is said to have butted heads with Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson, particularly over the department’s preparedness to handle a smallpox epidemic. “Thompson didn’t know what the hell he was talking about,” says a current HHS staffer. “He was scaring people, talking off the top of his head. Then Fauci had to clean up the mess. It was awkward.”
Thompson is said to have strongly opposed a Fauci nomination since. “It wasn’t just the arguments over smallpox,” the HHS source says. “Thompson had some serious concerns about Fauci’s position on stem-cell research and fetal tissue research. It isn’t clear that Fauci would have fully supported the administration position on both.”
Zerhouni appears to back Bush’s position on both hot buttons, and when Fauci became too hot to handle, was the next pick. “Conservatives should be happy with this one,” says a White House legislative affairs staffer. “The Hill seems happy, we’ve been told he’s a slam dunk for confirmation.”
Given how confirmation hearings have gone for Republicans — and that Ted Kennedy will be running this one — maybe they better not speak too soon.
LIFE OF RILEY
Virginia Rep. Tom Davis, who oversees the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC), chose friendship and conservative politics over in-state competition when he funneled more than $300,000 in NRCC funds to Rep. Bob Riley, who is running for governor of Alabama. Riley is stuck in a tight Republican primary race with Lt. Gov. Steve Windom. The winner will run against Democratic incumbent Gov. Don Siegelman, who is seeking re-election.
Davis steered the money Riley’s way partly because of Riley’s strong conservative ties, but also to keep Riley energized in a push to keep his current Alabama seat in GOP hands. Riley’s 3rd Congressional District was in danger of being re-configured during redistricting, and that threat is said to have scared off several potential high-profile Republicans from filling that seat. It’s believed that some of the NRCC money will be steered to whichever candidate emerges as the top GOP prospect.
But the NRCC money has Riley challenger Steve Windom angry. A moderate, Windom claims he saved the 3rd district from redistricting and deserves the support of the national party more than Riley does. An NRCC fundraiser disagrees. “Riley means more to the party than Windom does,” he says. “He’s done good work for us up on the Hill. He deserves our support, and he’s going to help us hold that 3rd District seat, much more than Windom would.”
According to another NRCC staffer, Riley has agreed to keep his congressional staff intact for whoever wins the seat, assuring a smooth transition.
The $300,000 donation is a surprise, however, in that the NRCC normally does not provide such large financial support to non-House campaigns. “This is a unique situation,” says the NRCC staffer. “We have a chance to win a statehouse and hold a House seat. It’s a good investment.”