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PRESIDENT BUSH'S choice for secretary of labor, Rep. Lynn Martin of Illinois, starts out with a skeptical constituency in organized labor and no particular expertise in this complicated policy field.

We suspect that prominent among the reasons Rep. Martin, 50, a 10-year veteran in Congress, got the nod are these: She is a Bush loyalist. She is available after suffering defeat in her November bid for a U.S. Senate seat in Illinois. She is a woman, and Elizabeth Dole's departure has left the Cabinet without one.

"During her period of service to her district's constituency, her voting record has not reflected a sensitivity to the needs of workers," remarked Lane Kirkland, head of the AFL-CIO, the labor federation that counts 14 million members.

Rep. Martin, then, like Gov. Robert Martinez of Florida who lost in the November elections only to win a top federal appointment as the U.S. drug czar, has a lot to prove in her new job.

This is not to contend, however, that she has no chance of succeeding.

In her years in the House, she demonstrated competence as she compiled a record that tends to be conservative on fiscal issues and moderate on social ones.

While she is a Bush loyalist, that loyalty is tinged with independence. Rep. Martin has made no secret, for example, of her disagreement with the president's anti-abortion stand. Last year she voted to override a Bush veto of a higher minimum wage.

A former schoolteacher, she learns fast and possesses a quick wit. She once observed that Congress was occasionally "just like a day care center -- everyone would do a little better after a little nap."

Lynn Martin, considered a rising star in national Republican politics before her defeat for a House GOP leadership post two years ago and her beating by Paul Simon in the Illinois Senate race this fall, succeeds Elizabeth Dole as secretary of labor.

Mrs. Dole served with distinction, often bucking pressures from the business community. During her tenure, she championed upgraded safety in the workplace and improved job-training programs. She cracked down hard on employers trying to evade child-labor laws, especially in the fast-food industry.

As Bush's choice, Rep. Martin deserves to be confirmed by the Senate, barring the disclosure of some unexpected, disqualifying information.

But then, she undertakes a difficult new role. Her considerable natural abilities will be tested by the demands and pressures of ably representing America's working men and women in the Bush Cabinet.

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