If a new political breeze is blowing in the capital, perhaps the best evidence can be found in this: A Democratic president selects a Republican senator to serve in the Cabinet. The Democratic governor with the power to fill the Senate seat signals that he will leave it in Republican hands, depriving his party of a chance to reach 60 votes, a magic number when it comes to passing legislation.
President Barack Obama’s announcement on Tuesday that Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., who to this point has not been particularly supportive of him, is his nominee for commerce secretary will be the latest evidence that Obama is willing at this early stage to take risks and break at least some of the old rules of politics.
The role of commerce secretary has often been one of patronage, a job parceled out to a prominent business executive or a top political booster. Obama’s first choice for the job, Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico, fit that model. Consideration of Gregg came about far differently, White House aides say, and turned serious shortly after Richardson pulled out last month because of an investigation into his handling of state contracts.
When approached by advisers with the idea of placing Gregg at the Commerce Department, the president said he found him “an intriguing choice,” aides say. Other Democrats who were privy to the discussions were excited at the possibility that Gregg could be succeeded by a Democrat, a notion Gregg immediately quashed by telling the president that he would not serve if a Democrat were to fill his seat.
The Democrats currently have 58 seats in the Senate, and will gain a 59th if the long dispute over the Senate race in Minnesota goes their way. Were Gregg to then be succeeded by a Democrat, the party would have enough votes to cut off Republican blocking maneuvers and pass legislation much more easily.
Gregg repeated Monday that he would not take the Cabinet job if doing so would give the Democrats that advantage.
“I have made it clear to the Senate leadership on both sides of the aisle and to the governor that I would not leave the Senate if I felt my departure would cause a change in the makeup of the Senate,” he said. “The Senate leadership, both Democratic and Republican, and the governor understand this concern, and I appreciate their consideration of this position.”
Obama’s secret interview with the senator at transition headquarters last month, aides say, was one of the few serious one-on-one conversations between them. In Obama’s brief time on Capitol Hill, they barely knew each other, aside from occasional chats in the Senate gym.
The idea of offering the job to Gregg came, at least in part, from the Senate majority leader, Harry Reid of Nevada. (The two senators are close, aides to both men said.) Reid mentioned the idea to Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff, who passed it on to the president.
During the presidential campaign, Gregg spoke sharply against Obama’s candidacy. He called the Democratic nominee’s spending proposals “the Obama spend-o-rama.” Then he attacked the principles of the party at a rally in New Hampshire, saying: “We don’t need any more Democrats as president of the United States. We had enough when we had Bill Clinton.”
But Gregg, who has earned high marks for budget expertise and is well regarded by the business community, fit the profile of what the new president was looking for: a respected Republican in his Cabinet — the third Republican there after Ray LaHood and Robert M. Gates — to help argue on behalf of the administration’s economic stimulus plan and take up politically sensitive discussions about overhauling Medicare and Social Security.
Even when the possibility of putting a Democrat in Gregg’s Senate seat dimmed, Obama pressed ahead, telling his advisers that it was more important to build a bipartisan Cabinet than increase his Senate majority.
New Hampshire’s governor, John Lynch, a Democrat who enjoys bipartisan support, also proved willing to go along with Gregg’s condition. Lynch told friends that he thought it would not be fair, or politically popular among a substantial number of New Hampshire voters, to replace Gregg with a Democrat. And he thought it would be a plus for the state to have a representative in the Cabinet.
“I have had conversations with Senator Gregg, the White House and U.S. Senate leadership,” Lynch said in a statement on Monday. “Senator Gregg has said he would not resign his seat in the U.S. Senate if it changed the balance in the Senate. Based on my discussions, it is clear the White House and Senate leadership understand this as well.”
Lynch, several New Hampshire political advisers say, is leaning toward appointing Bonnie Newman, who was an aide to Gregg when he served in the House and who also worked for Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. Newman, a centrist Republican, endorsed Lynch when he ran for governor in 2004. Setting up a wide-open race for the seat in 2010, she has told friends that she does not intend to run for it then.
In interviews Monday, several Democrats expressed frustration that the party would miss the chance to replace Gregg with a Democrat. But James M. Demers, a New Hampshire Democrat who was a leading supporter of Obama’s presidential bid, said selecting Gregg as commerce secretary would send a signal to Republicans that the president was serious about building a bipartisan team with diverse viewpoints. Demers said it could also ease suspicion among fiscal conservatives about Obama’s agenda.
“Judd Gregg could be an important part of changing how Washington operates, by being part of a bipartisan team that works for solutions to solve problems,” Demers said. “If he accepts the position, he is agreeing with Barack Obama that Washington needs to change.”