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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

It's MORNING EDITION. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

Six years in, the Bush administration is straining to fill some key jobs. Many of the vacancies are at the State Department. It's the public face of the United States and a critical part of the war on terror. Today a Senate committee holds a hearing to fill one of the empty jobs. John Negroponte would become a diplomat again after a period of running spy agencies.

The position he's nominated for is just one of many that are open, as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN: It took more than half a year to find a replacement for deputy secretary of state. Robert Zelig quit the post last summer to head to Wall Street. And since then, President Bush has received other resignation letters from the State Department. So many, that conservative columnist Robert Novack wrote recently, that the State Department under Secretary Rice is a mess.

Rice's spokesman, Sean McCormick called the criticism ridiculous and insisted that this turnover is only natural.

Mr. SEAN MCCORMICK (State Department Spokesman): Look, this is the time in an administration - six years in - where a lot of people have been here from the very beginning, and these jobs are grueling in terms of the physical and psychological demands. And so I think you are starting to see some people move on.

KELEMEN: Among those moving on are the undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, Robert Joseph; the State Department's counterterrorism coordinator, Henry Crumpton; and the assistant secretary for political military affairs, John Hillen. Rice's counselor, Philip Zeleco, left at the end of last year; and the State Department's top economic advisor, Josed Sharin, is leaving to head the World Food Program.

New York University professor Paul Light, who tracks presidential appointees, says the attrition rate at the State Department reflects a broader trend.

Professor PAUL LIGHT (New York University): I'd estimate that between a quarter and a third of the Bush administration political appointments are either vacant right now or in the process of being vacated. People just don't want to serve for the last 18 months of a second-term administration. It is not the most gleeful of positions.

KELEMEN: Light was surprised, however, that it took so long to get a deputy secretary of state appointed. He said that was either a sign that Rice has a reputation for not being an inclusive administrator or that the president isn't so inclusive in his decision-making.

Prof. LIGHT: I think the latter is more likely to be the case: that the president has not shown a great desire for the opinions of lower-level State Department political appointees.

KELEMEN: John Alterman, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies has a similar take.

Mr. JOHN ALTERMAN (Center for Strategic and International Studies): Earlier in the administration, I heard people in the White House say time and time again, the State Department needs to be reminded that they work for President Bush. That could be an argument for not having the State Department being very strong, because of the sense that the stronger they are the more they will divert from the policies the president has set out.

KELEMEN: Alterman says the White House, the vice president's office and the Pentagon have eclipsed the State Department on a number of key issues facing the U.S. today.

Mr. ALTERMAN: What I haven't seen a lot of in this administration is people looking around and saying, you know, to solve this problem we have to throw more diplomats at it.

KELEMEN: Senators on the Foreign Relations Committee though, do want to see the State Department staffed up. In his opening statement for John Negroponte's confirmation hearing today, Senator Richard Lugar raises concerns about the key vacancies in Rice's State Department.

We are a nation at war in two countries, the Indiana Republican says, and every gap in civilian leadership is felt.

Lugar is appealing to Negroponte to help fill the gaps as soon as he's confirmed and arrives at the State Department.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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