In the midst of the last minute alterations to the economic stimulus package, Senator Judd Gregg withdrew his name from consideration for the position of Commerce Secretary. The nomination of the New Hampshire Republican was promoted by the Obama administration as evidence of its efforts to bridge the partisan divide in the nation’s capital. Gregg said the decision to withdraw was personally difficult but he said he eventually realized it would be “difficult to be part of the team and not 100% of the team.”
The surprise announcement drew speculation that at the heart of the matter was differences between Gregg and the President on the administration of the 2010 Census. In response to a reporter’s question regarding the possible conflict, Senator Gregg downplayed that there was any substantive disagreement, calling the Census a “slight catalyzing issue.” In the past Gregg had supported abolishment of the Department of Commerce, and had voted against funding the 2000 decennial Census. His appointment drew the wrath of Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA), the chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, who had called upon Senate Democrats to be tough in their questioning of Gregg during his confirmation hearing.
Symbolically, it was a blow for the administration and the second hit it has taken over the Commerce post. Previously Governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico took his name out of the running for the post due to an ongoing investigation of his administration in his state. Gregg’s decision also comes after Tom Daschle, the former North Dakota Senator, withdrew his name from consideration for Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner also faced issues over his tax filings. What had been pretty smooth sailing for the administration has become rocky terrain as President Obama has not been able to complete appointments to his administration.
Now, with Gregg’s decision one of the major themes of the Obama administration – bipartisanship – has taken a hit at the same time the President has found it rough going to convince Republicans in both houses to support his economic recovery package. For his part Senator Gregg put the onus of his withdrawal upon himself, suggesting that he realized that his presence in the administration would not be a good fit. He also took pains to express his view that President Obama has gone to extraordinary lengths to try to bridge the ideological gap in Washington. The New Hampshire Republican also suggested that he believed the President could be successful and that he felt his own contribution to the administration might be greater in the Senate than in the administration. That view suggests Gregg might be prepared to vote in favor of the economic recovery legislation though he would not answer a reporter’s question on that issue when asked.
President Obama will have to quickly re-group from this latest stumble because much of his economic recovery agenda is focused on reviving the private sector and the Commerce Department plays a critical role, along with the Department of Labor, in shaping economic policy. The White House will face pressure from Democrats on the Hill to come up with a well vetted candidate, who will pass muster within the President’s party, and have a relatively easy path to confirmation.