Ron Edmonds/AP
President Barack Obama, left, listens to Sen. Judd Gregg, right, a New Hampshire
Republican, after he announced Gregg as his choice to become commerce secretary.

Gregg’s Nomination at Department of Commerce Comes With Strings Attached

February 03, 2009 04:14 PM
by Christopher Coats
Ensuring the Democrats’ slim Senate majority stayed that way, Secretary of Commerce-designate Judd Gregg sought out appointment guarantees before accepting the position.

Gregg Prevents Democrat Supermajority

Despite the hope among Democrats that the nomination of Republican Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire would provide them with a supermajority in the Senate, President Obama’s final cabinet pick made sure his seat was filled to his liking before accepting.

Marking the fourth Senate vacancy left to be filled as a result of the new administration’s attempts to build a cabinet, Gregg was the final choice for Secretary of Commerce after New Mexico’s Bill Richardson withdrew from consideration following an investigation into his gubernatorial office.

Hailing from a state that allows the sitting governor to select a senator’s replacement should they leave office early for any reason, Gregg’s selection was seen by some as a means to push Democrats into an unbreakable majority in the Senate.

New Hampshire’s current governor, John Lynch, is a Democrat and was thought to have been likely to appoint a member of his own party to replace Gregg.

Coupled with the arrival of Minnesota’s Al Franken, who is now locked in a legal battle to decide his state’s senatorial election with Republican Norm Coleman, Lynch’s appointment would have meant a veto-proof Democratic Senate.

However, reports emerged days before President Obama’s official nomination of Gregg to Commerce that the outgoing Senator sought assurances from Lynch that either a moderate Republican or at least an Independent would fill his seat, denying Democrats a supermajority.

Reflecting the involvement of GOP leadership in the selection process, Kentucky’s Mitch McConnell told CBS’s “Face the Nation” last Sunday that he had been assured by Gregg that he would not vacate his seat if it served to alter the political makeup of the Senate.

A day before the nomination was announced, Lynch himself addressed the demands outlined by Gregg before he would consider accepting the Obama invitation.

“I have had conversations with Senator Gregg, the White House and U.S. Senate leadership. Senator Gregg has said he would not resign his seat in the U.S. Senate if it changed the balance in the Senate,” Lynch said, according to The Atlantic’s Marc Ambinder. “Based on my discussions, it is clear the White House and Senate leadership understand this as well.”

According to the Union Leader, Lynch is expected to appoint the University of New Hampshire interim president Bonnie Newman to replace Gregg should he be confirmed.

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Reaction: Resistance on both sides of the aisle

Even before Gregg’s official announcement, Democrats openly fretted about the possibility that Lynch would not toe the party line by appointing a fellow Democrat.

However, given Obama’s repeated calls for a bipartisan approach to legislation—his appointment of Illinois Republican Ray LaHood to the Department of Transportation and his decision to keep Independent Robert Gates on at the Department of Defense—some said they were not surprised with how things turned out. 

“You have got to admire Obama’s discipline to message,” a Senate Democratic official told The Huffington Post. “He seems committed to continuing this bipartisan message no matter how much pushback he gets from House or Senate Republicans.”

Despite the selection of a fellow Republican to fill the Commerce vacancy, some conservatives have been vocal about their disappointment in both Gregg’s selection and his decision to accept the Obama invitation.

Writing in the American Spectator, Philip Klein wondered, “What is Gregg Thinking?

“Even were New Hampshire Gov. John Lynch to agree to appoint a Republican, anybody Lynch picked would be a moderate who would likely be more vulnerable than Gregg in 2010,” Klein wrote. He also recalled an earlier meeting with the New Hampshire Senator that gave him the impression that Gregg was eager to escape what he saw as an increasingly marginalized Senate majority under the leadership of Democrat Harry Reid.

Context: A broader role for commerce?

Charged with promoting U.S. business both at home and abroad, the Department of Commerce has often been looked upon as a second-tier cabinet position. However, the department, which employed over 38,000 employees and operated a $7 billion budget under its last secretary, could play a more central role as U.S. companies struggle to survive and compete in the current economic crisis.

Further, the department’s role as facilitator of telecommunications and technology policy could help strengthen its presence in the administration, given Obama’s attention to technology and plans to expand funding over the coming years.

Background: A season of Senate vacancies

Gregg is the fifth U.S. senator to vacate his seat as a result of the Obama administration. In addition to both Obama in Illinois and Vice President Joe Biden in Delaware, New York’s Hillary Clinton left her seat to act as secretary of state, and Ken Salazar of Colorado joined as seretary of the interior. All five states allowed their governor to select the senator’s successor.

Angered by what he sees as an “alarmingly undemocratic” process of selecting a senatorial successor, Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold has proposed a constitutional amendment to alter the current selection process.

Instead of allowing a governor to select a successor, the amendment would require a special election to decide who the new senator would be.

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