WASHINGTON -- When President Bush nominated Ellen R. Sauerbrey for a top State Department post last fall, outside advocacy groups waged an extended - and ultimately unsuccessful - fight to keep her from getting the job.
Now that she's in it, those critics are changing their tune about the outspoken conservative Republican from Maryland.
"The bottom line is, our initial impressions are good," said Kenneth H. Bacon, president of Refugees International, who met recently with Sauerbrey, at her request. "Although, frankly, she hasn't been tested yet."
Sauerbrey has kept her promise to reach out to advocacy groups, including those, like Bacon's, that criticized her.
"What happened before I was confirmed is ancient history," she said in an interview.
Actually, Sauerbrey never was confirmed. Because Senate Democrats effectively blocked her nomination, Bush used a special procedure to install her as assistant secretary for population, refugees and migration. By exercising his executive authority to put her in the $143,000-a-year job while Congress was in recess, she has the position until the next congressional session ends, in late 2007 or January 2008.
Sauerbrey said the first weeks in her new job have been filled with introductory meetings, including talks with international officials and advocates such as Bacon, whose best strategy for getting what they want might well be to have Sauerbrey on their side.
Bush's choice of Sauerbrey, 68, was a contentious one because the job had traditionally been filled by someone with a long history of working with refugees. Her nomination prompted an outcry from some refugee and women's health groups, who called her unqualified and objected to her on ideological grounds.
Sauerbrey spent 16 years in the Maryland House of Delegates and was twice the Republican nominee for governor, losing by fewer than 6,000 votes to Democrat Parris N. Glendening in 1994. She chaired Bush's 2000 presidential campaign in Maryland, and he rewarded her with a pair of part-time United Nations jobs, including as U.S. envoy to the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women, which works on refugee and women's health issues.
As she finds her way around the bureaucracy - she oversees 128 people, 24 of them based overseas - Sauerbrey said she is trying to stay focused on her primary mission.
She said she works "with the recognition at all times that our basic function is to deliver services and to provide assistance to the most vulnerable and, in many cases, most oppressed people in the world."
"Every day, there's a new crisis somewhere," she said. "This is a very far-reaching set of issues that PRM deals with."
Sauerbrey is likely to be tested quickly. While Bush's new budget would provide Sauerbrey's department with $834 million - on paper, a slight increase - she will have to fight for funding.
George Rupp, president of the International Rescue Committee, said the increases are offset by reductions in other areas. Ensuring that programs within the refugee bureau, particularly those overseas, get enough money is going to be difficult, he said.
Sauerbrey said her bureau will "have to do a little belt-tightening" but expressed confidence that more money could be available.
There are other places where Sauerbrey must prove herself, according to Rupp and Bacon. One is a battle within the administration over resettling refugees inside the United States, which opponents say would compromise national security.
Sauerbrey said she is working "to resolve these issues in a way that does not penalize people who have been victims of dictators and brutal regimes."
Winning the argument with the Department of Homeland Security, though, might not be easy.
"Her ability to do that will really be a test," Bacon said.
Rupp said that when he met with Sauerbrey, he pledged to help in any way he could, and she vowed to push the issue inside the administration.
"If she were successful in getting the White House to address that, that would be a major success," Rupp said. "We will do all we can, and she assured me she's doing all she can. Now, we'll have to see if we can be successful."
Sauerbrey said she also wants to focus on the plight of "internally displaced peoples" who have been driven from their homes but remain within the borders of their countries. Conflicts in places such as Chad, Colombia and India have left an estimated 20 million to 25 million people adrift worldwide, according to the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.
Sauerbrey called the plight of these populations "probably the biggest gap in the delivery of humanitarian aid." When she met recently in Geneva with top U.N. refugee officials, they talked extensively about how the international agency could take the lead on the issue.
Next month, Sauerbrey will get a firsthand look at conditions in refugee camps when she travels to Kenya and Uganda.
"I think it's essential for me to get out there and for me to have a full understanding of what it is like to be a refugee," she said.
She'll also go to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where there is a U.S. processing center for refugees, and she hopes to go to Chad and the Darfur region of Sudan, the center of an international refugee crisis caused by a long civil war.
"It's a balancing thing because there's a lot to be worrying about every day here in the office," Sauerbrey said.
Bacon said that, despite his earlier reservations about Sauerbrey, he is prepared to help make her tenure a success.
"Her spirit, I think, is the right spirit," Bacon said. "She has sort of an inclusive view."