Gregg Withdraws As Commerce Pick

Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) said he had "made a mistake" in accepting the nomination as commerce secretary. He is the second Obama pick to withdraw his name for the post.
Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) said he had "made a mistake" in accepting the nomination as commerce secretary. He is the second Obama pick to withdraw his name for the post. (By Richard A. Lipski -- The Washington Post)
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By Anne E. Kornblut and Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, February 13, 2009

Saying he "made a mistake," Republican Sen. Judd Gregg withdrew yesterday as the nominee for commerce secretary, dealing a fresh blow to President Obama's quest to fill out his Cabinet and dramatically undercutting his efforts to forge a new bipartisanship in the capital.

Gregg said that he had simply lacked foresight and that he shouldered the burden of the decision entirely. "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 at a news conference on Capitol Hill.

He cited concerns about Obama's economic recovery plan and the administration's intent to have the next census director report to senior White House officials as well as the commerce secretary.

The timing of Gregg's communication with the White House about his decision was murky through much of the day, as the president's aides scrambled to revise their sometimes conflicting statements about when Obama was notified. Returning to Washington from Springfield, Ill., Obama told reporters on Air Force One that he learned just yesterday of Gregg's decision. He later clarified that he had spoken with the senator from New Hampshire a day earlier but "wasn't sure whether he'd made a final decision."

The episode underscored how burdensome Cabinet selection has become for the new administration, which has watched nearly half a dozen of its top appointees withdraw or face embarrassing scrutiny over the past several weeks. The slip-ups have caused the White House to revamp its vetting process and have slowed down confirmations for nominees already in the pipeline.

And now Obama is left with two key openings -- at the departments of Commerce and Health and Human Services -- and more questions about his personnel choices.

Gregg's withdrawal comes as Congress prepares for final passage of a $789 billion stimulus package; Obama previously got no Republican votes for the legislation in the House and only three in the Senate.

Senior Obama officials portrayed the latest personnel debacle as reflecting badly on Gregg alone, insisting they are still on course to change the tone in Washington and implement the president's policies. But aides acknowledged that it is now clear that Obama has not been rewarded for reaching across the aisle, and they said he feels no imperative to replace Gregg with another Republican.

Gregg's confirmation would have given Obama more Republican Cabinet members than any Democratic president in history. Obama himself wasted no time making clear that Gregg was responsible for first seeking, and then rejecting, the position, despite efforts to accommodate him.

"It comes as something of a surprise, because the truth, you know, Mr. Gregg approached us with interest and seemed enthusiastic," Obama said in an interview yesterday with the State Journal-Register in Springfield. "But ultimately, I think, we're going to just keep on making efforts to build the kind of bipartisan consensus around important issues that I think the American people are looking for."

Though the news came as a shock to the political establishment, White House officials said they had an inkling of Gregg's unease. Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel said Gregg called him Monday to say he was having second thoughts. Obama met with Gregg privately at the White House on Wednesday, according to Emanuel, and the three-term senator said he was leaning toward dropping out.

Gregg made the decision public yesterday afternoon, becoming the second Commerce Department nominee in two months to withdraw from consideration.

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