(POLITICO) Sen. Judd Gregg will be nominated as the new Commerce secretary Tuesday morning, giving President Obama a fresh independent voice in his Cabinet but at a huge cost to Republicans and the larger Senate.
The run-up to the nomination has focused on backroom deals, from New Hampshire’s statehouse to Washington, to preserve the balance of power in Congress. And Tuesday’s White House announcement is expected to be accompanied by one by New Hampshire Gov. John Lynch that will ensure that Gregg’s seat won’t switch to the Democrats before the 2010 elections.
But lost in the shuffle is the greater dynamic: Gregg himself and the fact that Obama, while talking a good game about bipartisanship, is draining the Senate of the very talent he needs to achieve this goal.
To a remarkable degree, Gregg has served as a trusted, behind-the scenes consigliore for every leader since the mid-’90s, from Mississippi’s Trent Lott to Bill Frist of Tennessee and now Kentucky’s Mitch McConnell. He is that Washington rarity: someone who thinks-often out loud- about issues but can also operate privately in giving advice and respecting the discretion of leaders.
“When everyone had said their piece, I would always turn to Judd and say, ‘Give us the contrarian view,’ and he would,” Lott told Politico. “He was loyal to his friends and not to have him, the Senate will be a lesser place. There’s that old joke when a House member goes to the Senate, the intellect of both bodies goes up. Well when Judd Gregg leaves, the Senate’s intellect will go down.”
Gregg’s record-in the House, as New Hampshire’s governor, and for 16 years in the Senate-has always been that of a fiscal conservative, albeit with more independence with time. Obama’s historic election and the immense economic dangers now facing the nation have clearly influenced his outlook, just as they have been two recurring themes in recent interviews.
“His election confirms our creed…His Inauguration is a renewal event,” Gregg said of the new president in December. More recently, he was impressed by Obama’s analysis of the economic crisis before a Senate Republican luncheon last week.
“His presentation was a tour de force. It was surely impressive and it was comprehensive,” Gregg said later. “I felt much better he had such a comprehensive understanding of what I see as the issue. He’s clearly moving forward aggressively on all the different fronts.”
For Gregg to cross over now and join the administration will make it harder for his fellow Republicans to demonize Obama and refuse to give the new president the running room he needs to put together his economic recovery plan.
Gregg has been critical himself of major elements in the president’s stimulus bill and argues for a greater emphasis on the housing crisis. But for him to be in the Cabinet, when the plan is actually implemented, could reassure Senate moderates that they can take a chance on the proposal.
“It’s a huge loss for the Senate. His institutional knowledge, political savvy, and financial expertise are irreplaceable,” said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine.) “But yes, it would make me feel better to have him there.”
A former Budget Committee chairman, Gregg has dealt with business-labor issues as a senior member of the Senate Health Education and Labor Committee, and from his perch on the Senate Appropriations Committee, he has a long familiarity with Commerce’s budget.
The Appropriations panel is also a common political base for Gregg and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). The two men, who share the same mix of humor and irascibility, have grown closer over time and Reid included Gregg on a delegation to Central and South America two years ago.
Obama’s gain is not just a loss of Republicans but Reid too. And it follows on Obama’s decision to tap Colorado Sen. Ken Salazar for Interior secretary, costing Reid a faithful Democratic lieutenant who served as his eyes-and-ears in the caucus.
Much as Gregg’s departure makes it easier for Democrats to capture his seat next year, he is also the type of person Democrats need across the aisle to help craft compromises and corral Republican votes.
Those compromises are more difficult now because the number of GOP moderates is in steady decline. A year ago, Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Oregon) was a reliable centrist vote on the Senate Finance Committee. He’s gone now, which is why the White House and Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont) had to go to such lengths to secure the vote of Sen. Olympia Snow (R-Maine.) last week.
Gregg played precisely this role in building support for the Treasury’s financial rescue package last fall. Again he worked with the Obama team in holding onto Republican votes in a messy fight last month over the release of the second $350 billion.
“There aren’t many people who can made a deal and bring votes too. Gregg can,” said a Democratic aide. Asked if Obama was making his job harder by taking Salazar and now Gregg, Reid seemed amused-but didn’t dismiss the notion out of hand. “Others will show up,” he said smiling.
In turn, leaving the Senate for a Cabinet post will surely cost Gregg some of his precious independence. Much depends on what discretion Obama gives him to play a role in fiscal policy outside Commerce’s domain and to speak up when he disagrees with the direction taken by the administration.
With New Hampshire trending toward the Democrats, Gregg faced what promised to be a difficult re-election campaign in 2010. But he was no means doomed, given his political heritage in New Hampshire and standing on Appropriations where he has brought home money for his state. And as a former governor, he appears to have been attracted by going back into more of an executive role.
Obama’s Cabinet already has two Republicans: Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who was appointed by President George W. Bush and then asked by Obama to remain; and former Rep. Ray LaHood of Illinois, who chose not to run for re-election last November and was going home, when tapped as transportation secretary.
Neither comes close to the Republican leadership credentials of Gregg.