Obama Picks Pledge Broad Policy Changes

Hillary Clinton may be grabbing Tuesday's spotlight as a Senate panel considered her nomination for secretary of state, but President-elect Barack Obama's picks for energy, education and housing and urban development secretaries also were facing Capitol Hill hearings.

The nominees have the potential to influence key policy initiatives in areas of climate change, the foreclosure crisis and how to fix America's struggling public school system.

Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Chu said if confirmed as energy secretary, he will aggressively pursue policies aimed at addressing climate change and achieving energy independence.

Education Secretary-designate Arne Duncan pledged to overhaul President Bush's No Child Left Behind initiative, which has been criticized by some for relying too heavily on standardized tests to assess student and teacher performance.

Shaun Donovan, who has been tapped to head the Department of Housing and Urban Development, will be charged with heading an agency that has been criticized for its implementation of a mortgage refinance program called Hope for Homeowners. It was designed to rescue up to 400,000 troubled borrowers but has reworked fewer than 1,000 loans.

Chu's strong backing of the science that indicates a man-made cause for global warming could be key to making good on Obama's campaign promise to reverse White House policy on controlling greenhouse gas emissions.

"It is now clear that if we continue on our current path, we run the risk of dramatic, disruptive changes to our climate in the lifetimes of our children and grandchildren," Chu said at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

Chu said the Obama administration would push for a carbon cap-and-trade system, which would require power plants, oil refineries and other industrial facilities to buy and sell pollution permits. The move is aimed at putting a market limit on overall emissions.

That Obama is pushing for such a plan "speaks to the importance he views this area," Chu said.

Duncan, 44, has been CEO of Chicago public schools since 2001. His tenure has featured rising student test scores and graduation rates, and he is credited with improving the quality of teaching. However, his critics contend that test scores already were on the upswing when he took over the school system.

Duncan expressed concern that the federal No Child Left Behind program, a cornerstone of the Bush domestic policy legacy, could in fact leave behind children with disabilities or those learning English as a second language.

"Let's not take too blunt an instrument to an entire school," Duncan said. "Those teachers are doing a herculean job and we need to recognize that. We need to reward that."

HUD nominee Donovan told senators that the Hope for Homeowners program had addressed only "a tiny trickle" of the problem loans.

"I think it's clear to everyone that there needs to be some changes to make sure that program is effective," Donovan said.

Among Donovan's tasks as HUD secretary will be to manage the Federal Housing Agency, a Depression-era program that policymakers hope will become an important tool to refinance troubled mortgages.

Meanwhile, the Senate Budget Committee was examining Obama's picks of Peter Orszag for director of the Office of Management and Budget and Robert Nabors II for deputy OMB director.

From NPR staff and wire reports

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