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Ex-Commerce Nominee Now Top Budget Critic

By Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Standing beside President Obama at the White House as he accepted the nomination to be commerce secretary two months ago, Sen. Judd Gregg (N.H), a stalwart Republican about to join a Democratic administration, said: "This is not a time when we should stand in our ideological corners and shout at each other."

Now, after turning his back on the post and the administration, the always confident and occasionally sarcastic Gregg has rediscovered his voice as the top Republican on the Senate Budget Committee and de facto leader of the opposition to Obama's $3.5 trillion budget. And the rhetorical blows the generally reserved senator has struck against Obama's proposal have highlighted the very kind of ideological divide Gregg had warned against as a potential Cabinet member.

The budget prepared by the man he almost worked for could lead to "bankruptcy for the United States," according to Gregg, create a level of debt similar to that of a "banana republic" and threaten American children by putting them "at a huge disadvantage as they inherit this debt, which will make their chances of success less than those given to us by our parents."

He likened a Democratic proposal to use a budget procedure known as reconciliation to ease the path to health-care and climate-change legislation as an "act of violence against the system here in the Senate" and said it was "running over the minority, putting them in cement and throwing them in the Chicago River."

On Saturday, Gregg delivered the Republican response to the president's radio address, again criticizing the budget proposal.

Gregg is a fiscal conservative known for employing colorful rhetoric to complain about what he views as a government excess, and his sharp opposition has not been entirely surprising. Obama, in initially tapping Gregg for the commerce secretary post that former Washington governor Gary Locke (D) now holds, had noted the senator's anti-spending tendencies, joking, "It's not that he enjoys saying no, although if it's directed at your bill, you might feel that way."

Gregg, 62, and Obama were never close in the Senate, and the New Hampshire Republican says that he bears no ill will toward Obama from the nomination process and that he has not even spoken to the president about the Cabinet appointment since he withdrew his name, although he has attended meetings at the White House on other issues. He says his rhetoric simply reflects strong opposition to Obama's budget outline and what he characterizes as Obama's refusal to offer concrete plans to address the rising costs of Social Security and Medicare, which Gregg says must be tackled now.

"I'm perfectly happy to be supportive of the president when he's on the right track on places like Afghanistan and Iraq," Gregg said in an interview yesterday. But, he added, "to paraphrase Margaret Thatcher, the basic problem with the Obama budget is at some point we run out of money."

Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) chairman of the Senate Budget Committee and a frequent sparring partner with Gregg on the chamber floor, defended the budget outline as one that will reduce the deficit by two-thirds over the next five years.

"If our budget is so bad, where is their budget?" said Conrad, criticizing the decision by Gregg and other GOP senators not to offer an alternative budget resolution.

Democrats argue that Gregg's opposition to the Obama plan is hypocritical. When Republicans were in charge of Congress, Gregg backed tax cuts supported by the Bush administration that Democrats say increased the national debt. And while Gregg has sharply attacked Democrats for considering the use of reconciliation, which would allow them eventually to pass legislation to reform health care with 51 votes rather than the normal 60 that would be needed to avoid a filibuster, Gregg publicly favored such a provision as Budget Committee chairman in 2005 as part of an attempt to push through a GOP-backed proposal to allow oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

With a Democrat in the White House, Gregg and his fellow Republicans face long odds in slowing the Democratic agenda, as a budget resolution requires only 51 votes in the Senate and Democrats currently control 58 votes on most procedural issues.

For Gregg, the budget fight may be among his last on the front lines of politics. After he belatedly turned down the Cabinet post, he also announced that he would not run for reelection in 2010, although Senate Republicans have tried to persuade him to stay for reasons of both politics and substance. He is regarded by Republicans as one of their smartest caucus members and is a regular invitee to GOP leadership meetings for his strategic advice, even though the political loner has never pursued an elected leadership post.

And as the Northeast has increasingly turned Democratic, Gregg has remained a Republican stalwart, unlike the two GOP senators from neighboring Maine who frequently vote with Democrats in the Senate. Democrats will be favored to win his seat next year if Gregg follows through on retirement.

Gregg's departure would be the end of an era in New Hampshire. The son of a former New Hampshire governor and longtime figure in New Hampshire politics, he was first elected to the House in 1980, served two terms as the state's governor and was elected to the Senate in 1992. A member of the Gregg or Sununu family (former governor John H. Sununu and his son, former senator John E. Sununu) has been a senator or governor for most of the past three decades.

In many ways, he is the epitome of a dying breed in Congress of northeastern Republicans, a low-key fiscal conservative who speaks little about controversial social issues such as abortion. His flirtation with the Cabinet was perhaps his biggest star turn on Capitol Hill since the millionaire bought Powerball tickets on a lark four years ago and won more than $850,000.

He dislikes discussing the Cabinet process but seems relieved about retaining his power to "be my own person."

"I don't plan to be a potted plant while I'm sticking around here," Gregg said. "There are things I can still do and do effectively, and one of them is to be a voice for fiscal sanity."

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