President Bush yesterday tapped Mike Leavitt, chief of the Environmental Protection Agency, to be his next secretary of health and human services as the White House sought to put...

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WASHINGTON — President Bush yesterday tapped Mike Leavitt, chief of the Environmental Protection Agency, to be his next secretary of health and human services as the White House sought to put its Cabinet-selection process back on track after the collapse of its homeland-security nomination.

Leavitt’s surprise selection put another fellow former Republican governor and Bush loyalist into the president’s top tier for the second term, supervising an agency that handles some of the most politically sensitive domestic issues.

It also rounded out the Cabinet except for the Department of Homeland Security, where Bush advisers scrambled to find a replacement for the president’s first choice, Bernard Kerik, who abruptly withdrew Friday.

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As the Cabinet turnover neared an end, the White House also turned attention to other top posts to be filled in the coming weeks, most prominently the new director of national intelligence created by legislation that Bush plans to sign Friday. Two senior administration officials said yesterday that CIA Director Porter Goss was not under consideration and would remain at Langley, Va., working under the new intelligence director.

Bush is also still looking for a new U.N. ambassador and, with Leavitt’s departure, will need a new EPA director. And as expected, NASA director Sean O’Keefe resigned yesterday in anticipation of taking an academic post.

Leavitt, 53, is a former governor of Utah who served a little more than a year at the Environmental Protection Agency, not long enough to leave a substantial legacy. A pragmatist who sought to balance competing policy interests, he was criticized by environmental groups for falling short in efforts to reduce power-plant emissions, although he did institute a regulation to reduce diesel pollution.

Praising Leavitt’s work at the EPA, Bush said he had enforced high standards with “a spirit of cooperation and with good common sense.”

The Senate is expected to easily confirm Leavitt, who will replace Tommy Thompson as head of the Department of Health and Human Services.

Leavitt will oversee an agency of 67,000 employees and a $573 billion budget. Its wide-ranging missions include paying the health-care bills of the elderly under Medicare and the poor under Medicaid, assuring the safety of prescription drugs, protecting the nation from naturally occurring epidemics as well as from bioterrorism, and sponsoring cutting-edge medical research.

He will oversee the regulatory groundwork to set up a new Medicare outpatient prescription-drug benefit in 2006, the biggest change for the program in 40 years.

Congressional aides and independent policy experts say that, to fulfill Bush’s pledge to halve the nation’s budget deficit, Leavitt may have to simultaneously push for significant cuts in Medicaid and Medicare, which account for almost $475 billion of the agency’s 2005 budget.

“If you look at the numbers, something big is going to have to happen if we are going to try to cut the deficit in half,” said Diane Rowland, executive director of the Kaiser Commission on Medicaid and the Uninsured. “If we see a budget (reduction) bill this year, both Medicare and Medicaid are largely the places they are going to have to turn to try to get savings.”

Medicaid, with more than 50 million beneficiaries, is a federal-state program that pays the medical bills of the poor and the nursing-home costs of many elderly. It also provides health insurance for the children of low-income working parents. In the past, the administration has proposed capping the federal contribution for medical costs of the poor, currently about $100 billion a year, while giving states greater flexibility on how to use the money.

Meanwhile, Medicare faces pressure to cut payments to hospitals and other providers.

A former Democratic governor of Oregon who worked with Leavitt when both were state chief executives offered a strong endorsement.

“Mike is a very bright guy, a moderate Republican who is interested in finding solutions,” said John Kitzhaber, who is a physician. “I also think there’s a real value to having a governor in the Cabinet. If they in fact are going to whack the money in [health] programs, Mike is certain to be in the position of dealing with other governors, who undoubtedly will come unglued when that happens.”

As governor of Utah, Leavitt undertook a modest experiment with health-care reform. With federal approval, he shifted some Medicaid funds to provide low-income workers with the choice of either preventive benefits or a partial subsidy to buy health insurance through their employers. Of the 250,000 adults in Utah without health coverage, about 16,000 enrolled in the programs, according to news accounts.

Before becoming governor, Leavitt had been an executive in his family insurance business, a fast-growing company that sells life, auto and health-care coverage and whose customers include businesses and individuals.