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Emphasis on smooth transition to new Cabinet

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[January 09, 2009]  WASHINGTON (AP) -- Just minutes after George W. Bush took the oath of office eight years ago, he signed papers formally nominating 13 Cabinet-level officials. Several hours later, the Senate, meeting in a special Saturday session, confirmed seven Cabinet secretaries, including the heads of the key posts at State, Treasury and Defense.

That swift and seamless transition, expected to be repeated when Barack Obama is sworn in as president on Jan. 20, reflects a long tradition of the Senate giving deference to a new president's picks for his leadership team. Also in play is the post-Sept. 11 resolve that there be no interruption in the line of succession if the president or other leaders die or are disabled.

DonutsObama moved quickly to choose core members of his Cabinet, including Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton to head the State Department, New York Federal Reserve Bank president Timothy Geithner to be Treasury secretary and Robert Gates to stay on as chief at the Pentagon.

Tradition calls for current Cabinet secretaries to prepare letters of resignation as the administration nears its end. But they all serve at the discretion of the president, and Bush has directed that they will formally leave office at noon on Jan. 20, concurrent with the swearing in of the new president.

The exception is Gates, who by becoming Obama's defense secretary could move up in the line of presidential succession, although only for a few hours, if the Senate acts quickly to confirm Clinton or Geithner. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff also will keep his job briefly, until 9 a.m. on Jan. 21, to oversee the massive security operation for the inauguration.

The Bush Cabinet secretaries, by resigning, take themselves out of the line of presidential succession, which does not apply to the next administration until the new president and his Cabinet are sworn in.

The Presidential Succession Act signed by President Harry Truman in 1947 has the vice president -- Dick Cheney until Jan. 20 -- next in line, followed by speaker of the house, Nancy Pelosi, and the president pro tempore of the Senate, Robert Byrd, D-W.Va.

Following are 15 Cabinet posts starting with the secretary of state, treasury secretary and defense secretary. At the bottom of the list are the heads of the two newest departments, Veterans Affairs and Homeland Security.

Excluded are Cabinet secretaries -- Interior Secretary Carlos Gutierrez and Labor Secretary Elaine Chao at present -- who are not natural-born citizens.

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Even in the pre-Sept. 11 transition of 1993, the Senate confirmed the first three in the line of succession -- to head the State, Treasury and Defense departments -- on the first day of Bill Clinton's presidency. Thirteen more top aides were confirmed the next day.

Congress in recent years has considered, but never passed, legislation that would remove the House speaker and the Senate president pro tem from the line. One argument is that terrorists might believe that they could change U.S. policy by killing the president and vice president so that a speaker from the other party would take over.

Byrd recently marked his 91st birthday and is stepping down as chairman of the Appropriations Committee. But there's been no talk of removing him as Senate president pro tempore, a largely symbolic post reserved for the longest-serving member of the majority party.

The late Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., was 98 when he stepped down in 2001 as president pro tempore because the Democrats gained the majority.

[Associated Press; By JIM ABRAMS]

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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