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Obama aides say Clinton 'on track' for secretary of state job

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  • NEW: Tom Daschle tells CNN he's eager to tackle health care reform
  • Obama taking national security advice from Republican
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(CNN) -- President-elect Obama is on track to nominate Sen. Hillary Clinton as his secretary of state after Thanksgiving, three aides on Obama's transition team told CNN Thursday.

Clinton senior adviser Philippe Reines repeated a statement that "any and all speculation about Cabinet or other administration appointments is for President-Elect Obama's transition team to address."

CNN also has learned that Obama is getting foreign policy advice from an unlikely source: Republican Brent Scowcroft, who was national security adviser in the first Bush administration.

Two sources familiar with the conversations confirm to CNN that Obama reached out to Scowcroft for phone chats even before he ran for president, and the back-and-forth has continued in recent days as the president-elect assembles his Cabinet.

Scowcroft is very close to current Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who is rumored to be in the running to stay in the Cabinet for at least an interim period at the start of the new Obama administration.

During a recent appearance on CNN's "Fareed Zakaria GPS," Scowcroft said it would be a wise move for Obama to keep Gates in the Cabinet.

"I actually think it would send the kind of signal that I think the president-elect intends, or spoke about in his campaign, and that is that we need to work together. We need to work as Americans," Scowcroft said. "And I think giving Bob Gates some more time to do the kinds of things he's doing would be a very wise course of action."

But a senior Obama aide told CNN not to see the conversations as a signal that Gates may keep his job. "Don't read anything into this -- he was an admirer [of Scowcroft] long before running or even needing to select" a secretary of defense, the Obama aide said.

The Obama aide said the president-elect "respects and admires Gen. Scowcroft's bipartisan, pragmatic approach to foreign policy," adding that Obama "looks forward to continuing the dialogue with Gen. Scowcroft -- as well as other key Republicans, Democrats and independents -- to get the very best advice."

Scowcroft, who opposed the war in Iraq, is a fierce critic of the current Bush administration's approach.

"I think we developed in the Republican Party a -- well, you know, the buzzword for it is "neoconism,' " Scowcroft said on CNN earlier this month. "But I think what it is, it's an ideology -- it's really an idealistic approach to things. But it's a combination of idealism and, if you will, brute force."

On Thursday, former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle told CNN that he is excited about the possibility of heading the Department of Health and Human Services in the Obama administration, where he would be the point person in helping to reform the nation's health care system.

Three sources close to Obama's transition team told CNN on Wednesday that the president-elect's choice to lead HHS is the former senator, if he passes the vetting process.

Daschle himself is on the health care advisory group of Obama's transition team. Video Watch what the Daschle pick could mean »

The sources, who are in a position to know, said that Daschle negotiated that he would also serve as the White House health "czar" -- or point person -- so that he would report directly to the president. This would guarantee that Daschle -- not White House staffers -- would be writing the health care plan that Obama submits to Congress next year.

"I hope to have the plan enacted by next year, and then it will take several years to implement," Daschle said as he waited in Washington to board a plane bound for Obama's hometown of Chicago, Illinois.

Asked if the United States, in the current economic climate, can afford to reform its health care system, Daschle said, "We can't afford not to do it. If we do nothing, we'll be paying twice as much on health care in 10 years as we do today."

Daschle was Democratic leader in the Senate from 1995 until he lost re-election in 2004. Representing South Dakota, he was first elected as a congressman in 1978 and served in the House until he was elected to the Senate in 1986.

He recently wrote a book on health care titled "Critical: What We Can Do About the Health-Care Crisis."

Daschle is currently billed as a "special public policy adviser" in the Washington office of the law firm Alston & Bird.

He is not a federally registered lobbyist, but his wife, Linda Daschle, is a registered lobbyist at the firm Baker Donelson, which has clients in health-related fields.

However, a source close to Tom Daschle told CNN that Linda Daschle recently informed Baker Donelson that she will be leaving the company at the end of the year in order to open her own independent lobbying shop, which will have no health care clients.

Also Thursday, Chicago businesswoman Penny Pritzker said that she is not a candidate for secretary of commerce in the Obama administration.

Pritzker said that she "never submitted any information for the vetting process to begin" and that "while there were discussions, I was never formally offered the position.

"I have obligations here in Chicago that make it difficult for me to serve at this time."

Pritzker was Obama's national campaign finance chairwoman and had been mentioned as the leading candidate to become Obama's secretary of commerce. She is the chairwoman of TransUnion, a national credit reporting agency. Video Watch analysts weigh in on Obama's staff picks »

In a written statement her office issued Thursday, she said, "I think I can best serve our nation in my current capacity: building businesses, creating jobs and working to strengthen our economy."

Pritzker noted that "it has been my great privilege to serve in the Obama campaign. I look forward to helping our new president in every way possible and am excited about the future under his leadership."

Obama transition spokesman Robert Gibbs said in a statement:

"She would be an enormous asset to an Obama Administration given her experience in business and economic growth, but has decided that given her family and business commitments she is not interested in serving at this time. She'll continue to be a close economic advisor to the President-elect and his team."

Meanwhile, Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano is Obama's top choice for homeland security secretary, according to multiple Democratic sources close to the transition.

One source said he believed the final decision depends on the vetting of the Democratic governor, much like the selection of Eric Holder to be attorney general.

On Thursday, Arizona Sen. John McCain praised Napolitano.

"Gov. Napolitano's experience as the former U.S. attorney for Arizona, Arizona's attorney general, and as governor warrants her rapid confirmation by the Senate, and I hope she is quickly confirmed," he said. See whose names are emerging »

Obama met last week with New York Sen. Hillary Clinton to discuss the possibility of her serving as secretary of state. The Obama team is also vetting her husband, former President Bill Clinton, who has made several concessions in moving the process along. Sen. Clinton's response is expected this week. Video Watch how Obama's team wants to avoid 'distractions' »

However, a Democratic official said Wednesday that Senate leadership is considering a new role for Sen. Clinton should she decide to remain in the Senate.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's motivation for considering a new role for Clinton at this time was unclear, although multiple Democratic sources said Clinton made it known to the leadership prior to her meeting with Obama that she wanted a new role.Video Watch how Obama's Cabinet will have ties to lobbyists »

Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Massachusetts, announced Tuesday that Clinton would head a working group on health care reform. Her group will be focused on insurance coverage. The role Reid is considering would be in addition to that working group position.

"Sen. Clinton has told ... Sen. Kennedy, as well as Leader Reid, that she stands ready to help President-elect Obama in any and every way she can to enact comprehensive health care reform, which she has sought for nearly two decades," Clinton spokesman Philippe Reines said.

Critics question whether Obama's top staff picks so far represent the "change" that he promised during the campaign. iReport.com: Hillary would be 'more of the same'

More than half of the people named to Obama's transition or staff posts have ties to President Clinton's administration.

In addition to Sen. Clinton and incoming White Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, who is a former top aide to President Clinton, Eric Holder and Peter Orszag also have Clinton ties.

Holder, who is expected to be named attorney general, was Clinton's deputy attorney general. Orszag, who will reportedly head the Office of Budget and Management, was Clinton's special assistant at the National Economic Council and served on the Council of Economic Advisers.

The Clinton-heavy team has caused Republicans to question Obama's call for change.

"I think several individuals are very frustrated to think that President-elect Obama may just cut and paste from some of the Democratic operatives from the Clinton administration and put them into his White House," said Leslie Sanchez, a Republican strategist and CNN contributor.

Republicans aren't the only ones who want Obama to branch out. Robert Kuttner, a liberal and author of "Obama's Challenge," says the president-elect should broaden his recruiting efforts.

"It's not as if the only competent people who ever served in government or who are capable of serving in government are veterans of the Clinton administration, so he's got to be careful how many Clintonistas he appoints to top-level government posts," Kuttner said. iReport.com: Who should be in Obama's Cabinet?

Before Clinton, however, Democrats had not been in the White House since President Jimmy Carter, and many of those in Carter's administration are too old to serve again under Obama.

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The Obama transition team said in a statement that it is dedicated to building a well-rounded administration.

"President-elect Obama is committed to putting together a competent team that is diverse in many ways, including experience. Serving in high-level positions whether in government, in the private sector or in public service is seen as a positive," spokesman Nick Shapiro said.

CNN's Gloria Borger, Jason Carrol, Ed Henry, Jamie McIntyre, John King, Ed Hornick, Don Lemon and Jessica Yellin contributed to this report.

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