President Obama could name Republican Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire as his choice for commerce secretary as early as Monday, a move that potentially would mean a major shift in the balance of power on Capitol Hill.
An administration official said Saturday that Mr. Gregg, 61, is the “leading candidate” to head the department. The lawmaker confirmed Friday that he was being vetted for the post and pointedly declined to take his name out of the running.
Commerce is the last Cabinet post to be filled, since New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson withdrew his name from consideration early last month to deal with an ethics investigation involving a political contributor in his home state.
Mr. Gregg, a former Republican governor and three-term senator, is up for re-election in 2010. He was expected to face a serious challenge in a state that has increasingly leaned Democratic in recent years.
Should he accept the post, Democratic Gov. John Lynch will name his successor, and could choose a fellow Democrat to fill the post. But there has been speculation that the centrist governor could select a “place-holder” Republican or a nonpartisan choice who would agree not to run for a full term in 2010.
Should a Democrat get the seat, it would bring the Senate Democratic caucus to 59, one shy of the 60 needed for a filibuster-proof majority. If the pending Senate recount battle in Minnesota falls in Democrat Al Franken’s favor, the party would hit the magic number, and the Obama agenda would have a better chance of succeeding on Capitol Hill.
Senate Republicans have been furiously lobbying Mr. Gregg to stay since the news broke.
Mr. Gregg is a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee and is the ranking Republican on the Budget Committee. But as commerce secretary, he also would have huge sway over the 2010 census that lawmakers will use to redraw congressional districts.
Mr. Gregg is one of the last remaining New England Republicans in Congress. He recently has voted with Mr. Obama on several measures, including the confirmation of Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and for passage of a bill to curb pay discrimination for women and minorities.
Mr. Gregg would be the second congressional Republican in Mr. Obama’s Cabinet - joining former Rep. Ray LaHood of Illinois, who has been confirmed as transportation secretary. Mr. Obama also retained Secretary of DefenseRobert M. Gates from the Bush administration.