Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire abruptly withdrew Thursday as the nominee to be commerce secretary, saying he had “irresolvable conflicts” with President Barack Obama over his economic stimulus plan and a concern over what many fellow Republicans believe is the politicization of the 2010 census.
The departure of Gregg is the latest setback to a White House that has struggled to fill several top positions and fulfill the president’s pledge to build a bipartisan administration. He is the third prospective Cabinet secretary — the second at the Commerce Department — to remove his name from consideration.
“I’m a fiscal conservative, as everybody knows, a fairly strong one,” Gregg, a Republican, told reporters at an afternoon news conference in the Capitol. “And it just became clear to me that it would be very difficult, day in and day out, to serve in this Cabinet or any Cabinet.”
“It was my mistake, obviously, to say yes,” he added.
But the political fallout is left to the White House, which now has a string of appointees who have stepped aside over vetting problems, unpaid taxes or philosophical differences with Obama. Since the president took office last month, not a week has gone where the White House has not found itself responding to a personnel crisis.
Gregg said he alerted the president to his decision “several days ago,” but several administration officials said the senator’s withdrawal took them off guard.
The White House sought to contain the political fallout from losing another high-level appointee, issuing a terse statement and pointing out that Gregg had pledged to “support, embrace and move forward with the president’s agenda.”
Obama, who was traveling in Illinois, told reporters that he had spoken to Gregg on Wednesday, but he had not known that Gregg intended to withdraw until Thursday. He said Gregg had had a “change of heart,” but added that he intended to keep his pledge to have a bipartisan Cabinet.
“I am going to keep working at this,” Obama said, noting that the American people are “desperate” for Democrats and Republicans to work together.
The appearance by Gregg at his news conference in the Capitol was one of the few times he had been seen in public all week. Senators assumed that he was preparing for his confirmation hearings, but he was huddled with his wife, Kathy, and a small circle of advisers trying to determine how he could undo his decision last week to join the Obama administration.
He did not vote on the administration’s $789 billion economic stimulus plan the first time it came up in the Senate. He declined to tell reporters Thursday how he would vote on the bill when it comes before the Senate for final passage, but he signaled his disagreement with the policy by criticizing the plan in his withdrawal statement.
“It has become apparent during this process that this will not work for me as I have found that on issues such as the stimulus package and the Census there are irresolvable conflicts for me,” Gregg said. He added, “We are functioning from a different set of views on many critical items of policy.”