By Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 13, 2009
To hear him tell it, Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) withdrew as President Obama's nominee for commerce secretary to remain "my own man" -- the principled loner who chafes at taking orders.
"The bottom line is, this was just a bridge too far for me. The president asked me to do it; I said yes. That was my mistake, not his. But it was my mistake to say yes, because it wasn't my personality after 30 years of being myself," Gregg said yesterday at a hastily arranged news conference explaining his decision.
But Gregg's sudden reversal immediately became a partisan issue on the day before Congress is to vote on the $789 billion stimulus package, one of the issues on which the senator, in announcing his withdrawal, said he had "irresolvable conflicts."
Despite Gregg's assurances that he was to blame, leading Republicans said the move amounted to a repudiation of Obama's liberal agenda and a rebuke of his bipartisan outreach. White House aides countered that Gregg had given assurances that his conservative views would not hinder his ability to promote Obama's agenda and that he then changed his mind.
"He was uncomfortable philosophically with the position he would be put in," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
McConnell said that he had spoken regularly with Gregg since he decided to accept the nomination and that in recent days Gregg increasingly indicated doubts about taking the job. McConnell said he expects Gregg to receive a "standing ovation" when he walks into the next gathering of the Senate Republican Conference.
Gregg's selection was initially hailed as the most bipartisan of Obama's early moves, particularly because the three-term senator is no RINO, the derogatory acronym conservatives impose on moderate "Republicans in name only." The ranking Republican on the Budget Committee, Gregg is considered a deficit hawk and favors restricting Medicaid and Social Security benefits because of worries about the nation's long-term fiscal solvency.
McConnell noted that it was Gregg's "pragmatic streak" that caught the attention of Obama aides. He was one of just six Republicans to vote last month in favor of releasing the second half of the funds in the $700 billion financial rescue plan approved last fall.
His economic views are so respected by his colleagues that his long, detailed lecture on the credit markets during a contentious September meeting on the rescue plan helped rally a consensus to back it, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) said at the time.
After recusing himself from Senate procedures since his nomination Feb. 3, Gregg will return for the stimulus vote, expected today. He has refused to say how he will vote. His Republican friends expect him to oppose the measure, giving them the symbolic victory of a former Obama insider voting against the legislation.
Aside from concerns over the stimulus package, Gregg referred in his withdrawal announcement to his unease with indications from White House aides that he might not have had control over the 2010 census, because having it would mean a Republican would be in charge of a process that determines congressional district lines.
But in his news conference, Gregg played down concerns about the census -- calling it a "slight" issue -- and declined to criticize the stimulus plan, which stood at $819 billion on the day of his nomination, about $30 billion more than the final version.
Instead, he focused on his unwillingness to be part of a team, particularly if he didn't believe in its views "110 percent."
"For me, I just realized as these issues started to come at us, and they started to crystallize, that it wasn't a good fit and I wouldn't be comfortable doing this," Gregg said.
A two-term governor and four-term member of the House, Gregg was welcomed into Republican leadership circles soon after joining the Senate in 1993. Three GOP leaders have given him the unofficial position of counsel, the wise man at the table whose views are often sought but who holds no official portfolio.
For 10 years he has rebuffed requests by McConnell and others to run for an elected leadership position, choosing instead to stick to his committee work.
And while other Republicans saw Gregg's decision yesterday as a rebuke to the White House, the senator offered only praise to Obama. Ruling out a run for reelection in 2010, he pledged to reclaim his committee post and work closely with the president on entitlement reform and supporting the administration's effort to fix the financial crisis.
Gregg's decision to stay in the Senate blocks the expected appointment of J. Bonnie Newman, Gregg's former top aide and former president of the University of New Hampshire, from filling his seat for the remaining two years of his term.
Gregg said the "euphoria of the desire" to do something else and his genuine belief that Obama will have a "good presidency" made him overlook the ideological differences with Obama and his own inherent individuality as a politician.
"As a very practical matter, I made a mistake. I should have focused sooner and more effectively on the implications of being in the Cabinet versus myself as an individual doing my job," he said. "That's something I'll struggle with for a while, as to why I wasn't more focused sooner."