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Richardson withdraws Cabinet post

- The Washington Times - Monday, January 5, 2009

UPDATED:

President-elect Barack Obama said Sunday that he would withdraw Gov. Bill Richardson's nomination to be commerce secretary, with Mr. Richardson citing an ongoing corruption investigation in New Mexico.

In statements released by the presidential transition team, the New Mexico governor said he has not done anything wrong but that the investigation by federal prosecutors "would have forced an untenable delay in the confirmation process" and he asked Mr. Obama to withdraw the nomination.

"Governor Richardson is an outstanding public servant and would have brought to the job of commerce secretary and our economic team great insights accumulated through an extraordinary career in federal and state office," the president-elect said.

See related story:Richards withdrawal leaves gap in cabinet

Mr. Richardson had been the highest-profile Hispanic pick for Mr. Obama's Cabinet. While his withdrawal defuses what could have become messy confirmation hearings, it also is the first major crack in what had been a successful Cabinet rollout for Mr. Obama and came the same day that two of Congress' top Democrats said they did not expect to have a stimulus package on his desk by Inauguration Day.

Mr. Obama flew from Chicago to Washington on Sunday evening and took up residence at the Hay-Adams Hotel, just across the street from Lafayette Park and normally within eyesight of the White House, though it isn't now because of inauguration bleachers.

His two daughters are due to start classes at the elite Sidwell Friends School in Northwest on Monday, so Mr. Obama wanted to be in town before the traditional Jan. 15 date that the Blair House becomes available to the president-elect.

Mr. Obama's children and wife flew from Chicago to Washington on Saturday night.

Speaking briefly to reporters on his plane before it left Chicago for Andrews Air Force Base on Sunday, Mr. Obama said he got emotional over a memento left by one of his daughters' friends when he left the family's empty house.

"I gotta say I choked up a little bit leaving my house today," he said. "Malia's friend had dropped off an album of the two of them together. They had been friends since preschool, and I just looked through the pages, and the house was empty, and it was a little tough, it got me."

Mr. Obama said he wasn't especially happy about living in a hotel for two more weeks, saying he already had been through two years of that on the campaign trail.

The blocks of H and 16th streets that run in front of the Hay-Adams have been shut down and the entrances to the streets fortified with roadblocks.

Street parking for at least another block out from the hotel has also been removed.

In the minutes before Mr. Obama arrived, police swept the nearby buildings with searchlights looking for security threats. By the time the president-elect arrived, the corner of 16th and H streets had been cleared, pushing the security perimeter farther back.

Mr. Obama arrived at his hotel at 7:32 in a motorcade, unlike President Bush, who except in cases of bad weather usually departs the White House for Andrews Air Force Base in Marine One, the chief executive's helicopter. It was another reminder of Mr. Obama's observation that the nation has only one president at a time.

Mr. Obama's limo pulled into a white tent set up near the hotel and connecting with a side entrance, and he was not visible to the press and spectators.

A few dozen spectators, awaiting Mr. Obama's arrival earlier Sunday evening, mixed with a group of pro-Palestinian demonstrators at St. John's Episcopal Church who held a sign saying, "Obama: Palestinians need your help."

The demonstrators sang a modified version of the protest song "We Shall Overcome," with lyrics such as "Deep in my heart, I do believe, that Palestine will be free some day."

The war in Gaza is just one of the unexpected challenges Mr. Obama will face when he takes office. He also faces surprising political fights in the U.S. over vacant Senate posts, one of them being Mr. Obama's own former seat, now in limbo over the appointment by scandal-tainted Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich of former Illinois Attorney General Roland Burris.

He has meetings scheduled Monday at the Capitol with congressional leaders of both parties, as he seeks to push for a giant spending bill that he said will create jobs and spur economic growth. Also Monday, he is set to meet with his own economic advisers at his transition office.

Both House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, said on the Sunday political shows that a bill would not be ready by Jan. 20. Mr. Hoyer said he hoped to send a bill from his chamber to the Senate by the end of the month and have it to the president by mid-February.

Mr. Obama's spokesman, Robert Gibbs, agreed, telling reporters that beating an inauguration deadline was "very, very unlikely." Mr. Gibbs said Mr. Obama's meeting Monday is intended to instill a sense of urgency in congressional leaders.

Republicans have said they want to be careful in working on a spending bill. They said they want to see it coupled with spending cuts and to examine the measure closely to make sure it doesn't include earmarks, the pork-barrel spending projects that lawmakers slip into bills.

Except for trips to Hawaii for vacation and a brief visit with the nation's governors meeting in Philadelphia, Mr. Obama has spent his transition time in Chicago.

His Cabinet picks had drawn general approval from Democrats and Republicans, though questions have been raised about his pick for attorney general, former Justice Department official Eric Holder, who was involved in approving some of President Clinton's contentious last-minute pardons.

Mr. Obama did not say anything about whom he would pick to fill the gap in his Cabinet lineup.

Federal prosecutors are investigating whether a firm that has done business with New Mexico was granted improper favors by Mr. Richardson. The firm reportedly donated heavily to Mr. Richardson's political action committee.

"I and my administration have acted properly in all matters and this investigation will bear out that fact," the governor said. "But I have concluded that the ongoing investigation also would have forced an untenable delay in the confirmation process."

Mr. Richardson said he will remain as governor. He had earlier served as energy secretary and ambassador to the United Nations in Mr. Clinton's administration, and sought the Democratic presidential nomination last year.

Hispanic groups had pushed for him to be named to head the State Department, but that position is going to another former Obama rival, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York.

Mr. Richardson's spokesman in Santa Fe, New Mexico's capital, provided the same statement that the campaign did.

Lt. Gov. Diane Denish had been preparing for the transition to take the place of Mr. Richardson, whose second term as governor expires in 2010.

• Richard C. Gross contributed to this report.

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