- The Washington Times - Friday, February 13, 2009

UPDATED:

Sen. Judd Gregg abruptly withdrew his Cabinet nomination Thursday just nine days after being named commerce secretary, citing irreconcilable differences with President Obama that had left him silently erecting roadblocks to the administration’s own economic recovery package.

The New Hampshire Republican’s unexpected decision dealt a sharp blow to Mr. Obama’s efforts to create a bipartisan administration and was the latest drama in a young presidency that has suffered three other high-profile nominee withdrawals, questions about its vetting process and a flubbed banking plan that sent Wall Street reeling.

The White House defended the administration’s record but acknowledged that the latest setback might lead some to question the administration’s early competence.

“Some may call it amateur hour. Having been in two separate White Houses, I’d more than - and within our third week given this set of accomplishments - measure them up,” said Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, who cut his political teeth more than a decade ago in the Clinton administration, which also suffered some early bumps.

Democratic officials gave conflicting details Thursday on the Gregg nomination and his withdrawal.

Mr. Obama and White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said it was Mr. Gregg who asked the administration for the job in the first place. But Mr. Emanuel and a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, gave a different account, saying it was Mr. Reid who suggested Mr. Gregg for the job.

RELATED STORY:Gregg withdrawal foreshadows census debate.

Mr. Gregg said he did not expect to disagree so quickly with his new boss on policy and thought that withdrawing was the right thing to do. He disputed that he ever lobbied for the job. “I did not ask anybody to call for me to get me this job,” he said.

Reid spokesman Jim Manley confirmed to The Washington Times that Mr. Emanuel asked for suggestions for the commerce post and that Mr. Reid suggested Mr. Gregg.

There also was confusion about the timing of when the president learned of the senator’s decision.

Mr. Gibbs disputed senior Obama adviser David Axelrod’s statement that the president learned of the withdrawal Thursday. The press secretary said Mr. Gregg told the president of his intent to withdraw during a meeting Wednesday. Mr. Obama himself said a short bit later that he had indeed found out Thursday at the last minute.

Mr. Gregg took the blame for the drama, saying he realized too late that he and Mr. Obama disagreed too much on policy.

“This is simply a bridge too far for me. The president asked me to do it. I said yes. That was my mistake, not his,” Mr. Gregg said.

He said it became clear that he would clash with Mr. Obama after the White House tried to alter oversight of the Census Bureau’s 2010 count, and as the president pressed Congress to pass his $789 billion economic stimulus bill.

While remaining quiet publicly and not voting on the package last week, Mr. Gregg, as the top Republican on the Senate Budget Committee, had requested a series of reports from the Congressional Budget Office that showed that Mr. Obama’s spending package could end up harming the economy and cutting workers’ wages over the long run.

Those studies helped bolster opponents’ arguments against the spending bill.

Mr. Gregg declined to say Thursday how he planned to vote on the bill when it comes to the Senate floor for final passage.

Mr. Obama told reporters traveling with him in Illinois that he spoke with Mr. Gregg on Wednesday and knew that the senator was having second thoughts, although he said Mr. Gregg made up his mind Thursday.

“I think Judd’s a good man,” the president said.

Mr. Obama also said he hoped that people would not “take from this the notion that we can’t get Democrats and Republicans working together.”

“I am going to keep on working at this,” he said with a chuckle, speaking to reporters aboard Air Force One after it landed in Springfield, Ill., Thursday evening.

“And eventually we are going to break down some of these barriers because the American people need it.”

Mr. Emanuel said the White House was disappointed in Mr. Gregg’s decision but that it was better that it happen now than later. He also said Mr. Obama is racking up a string of accomplishments that are to be envied.

“I think the president has always indicated there will be days where there are setbacks, days where there will be disappointments, but as long as we’re moving forward, those will be bright days not just for us but in fact the American people,” he said. “Let’s be honest: Will the economic recovery or Judd Gregg be a bigger discussion point a week from now?”

The three earlier high-profile nominees to withdraw were Bill Richardson as commerce secretary, Tom Daschle as health and human services secretary and Nancy Killefer, whom Mr. Obama had tapped to fill a new job as the government’s chief performance officer.

She and Mr. Daschle withdrew facing questions over late tax payments, while Mr. Richardson, governor of New Mexico, withdrew in the face of a corruption probe.

A sheepish Mr. Gregg, facing a packed Capitol Hill briefing an hour after the news leaked, repeatedly took responsibility for the abrupt about-face, saying he had gradually come to the conclusion that the Cabinet job was a poor fit after a long career as a governor and senator with a reputation for independence.

“You can’t have a blocking back who pulls out every second or third play,” he said.

He said Mr. Obama had been “incredibly gracious” and had tried to persuade him to change his mind after he learned of his decision.

“I realize that to withdraw at this point is really unfair in many ways, but to go forward and take this position and then find myself sitting there and not being able to do the job the way it should be done on behalf of the president, 100 percent, would have been an even bigger mistake,” he said.

He denied that his withdrawal was largely based on the issue of the census, a task of the Commerce Department’s Census Bureau and traditionally overseen by the commerce secretary. Congressional Democrats had expressed alarm at the prospect of a lifelong Republican in direct charge of the national head count, and the White House said it would take a stronger oversight role on the census.

Rep. Barbara Lee, California Democrat and head of the Congressional Black Caucus, had told reporters earlier in the day that she had set up a meeting with Mr. Gregg to discuss her concerns about his role in the census and on the future of Commerce Department programs aiding minority and women-owned businesses.

Mr. Gregg “expressed ‘irresolvable conflicts’ on these very same issue,” Mrs. Lee said Thursday evening. “In light of this, we feel that his decision to withdraw is in the best interest of all parties.”

Mr. Gregg hinted that he may not seek a fourth Senate term in 2010, although he declined to make a definitive declaration. Democrats said his Senate seat could be a likely pick-up in New Hampshire for the party if Mr. Gregg does not run.

Senate Republican leaders were elated at the news that Mr. Gregg was staying in the Senate.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, said Mr. Gregg had “made a principled decision to return and we’re glad to have him.”

With 41 seats, Senate Republicans have barely enough votes to sustain a filibuster and delay legislation. Mr. Gregg’s return to the Senate is seen as giving the Republicans a much better chance of holding on to the seat in 2010.

• Christina Bellantoni and Stephen Dinan contributed to this report.

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