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.
"It's better we discover it now than later," Emanuel told reporters last night. Asked what had motivated Gregg, the chief of staff replied: "I'm not going to play psychologist or get into his head." Gregg and administration officials alike said there had been no vetting issues involved.
The timing was unfortunate for Obama, who had sought to focus on promoting his economic recovery plan yesterday, as well as to celebrate the 200th birthday of Abraham Lincoln, whose spirit of unity Obama has claimed as his own.
As the news unfolded, Obama was on his way to a dinner in Lincoln's honor in Springfield. White House officials rushed to contain the fallout, pointing to Gregg's seemingly peculiar decision to accept a job that would, by definition, require him to adhere to the positions that he later claimed drove him away. Administration officials rejected the idea that the size of the economic stimulus package, or other Democratic policies, had alienated Gregg.
In his statement, Gregg said that "on issues such as the stimulus package and the Census there are irresolvable conflicts for me. Prior to accepting this post, we had discussed these and other potential differences, but unfortunately we did not adequately focus on these concerns."
"I think what ended Judd Gregg's hope of and desire of being the commerce secretary wasn't anything any Democrat said or did, but what Republicans said and did," a senior administration official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. Democratic officials said they believed Gregg would have potentially faced rough questioning from Republicans during his confirmation hearings as they worked to find the GOP's footing as an opposition party.
The withdrawal raised new questions about whom Obama can safely choose for the commerce spot. A senior official said the president was not quite back at ground zero in the selection process. Still, there were no obvious alternatives.
After losing New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D) and then Gregg, Obama could turn to Symantec chief John Thompson, a Silicon Valley executive. But as a wealthy businessman, Thompson could have complicated finances, a situation Obama might want to avoid after the tax problems that have plagued other nominees.
Tax issues felled his pick to lead Health and Human Services, former senator Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.), and he has yet to announce a replacement.
Asked whether Obama had suffer ed a blow in his efforts to recruit Republicans, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said he had not. "I'm standing in East Peoria with Ray LaHood," Gibbs said by phone, referring to the Republican transportation secretary.
Nonetheless, Gregg's withdrawal sharpened the already palpable sense in Washington that Obama's promise of a new era of bipartisanship is seriously faltering. Just days after his historic inauguration, Obama held an unprecedented pair of closed-door meetings with Republicans on Capitol Hill -- meetings that, despite the kind words from GOP lawmakers that followed, yielded no results measured in votes.
By the time the president's stimulus package passed the Senate this week, all but three GOP members of Congress were lined up against it, complaining furiously that Obama and his allies were forcing a bloated, liberal bill down their throats.
"Despite our repeated attempts to work with President Obama and the Democrat Majority, Speaker Pelosi has refused to meet with us, or even include us in key negotiations, choosing instead to stick with a pork-filled bill that even members of her own party do not support," said a statement from Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), the minority whip.
Obama and his top aides tried furiously all week to rebut that cha rge. In his prime-time news conference Monday, the president said his efforts at bipartisanship were "designed to try to build up some trust over time."
Staff writers Alec MacGillis and Michael A. Fletcher contributed to this report.