US President Barack Obama’s quest to bridge Washington’s sharp political divides was dealt another blow on Thursday with the surprise exit of his commerce secretary pick, Republican Judd Gregg.
Gregg’s withdrawal, over “irresolvable conflicts,” complicated Obama’s attempt to win Republican support for his US$789 billion economic stimulus package and other key agenda items.
The New Hampshire senator’s decision appeared to irritate the Obama administration after he made his decision public just as the president began a speech appealing to Republicans to drop objections to the plan, which was expected to finally clear Congress yesterday.
Gregg said he was pulling out because of differences on the massive package and the reorganization of the Census Bureau, which is part of the Commerce Department.
In a first reaction, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs, who was traveling with Obama in Illinois, betrayed some frustration, saying that the Republican had “reached out to the president and offered his name for secretary of commerce.”
“He was very clear throughout the interviewing process that despite past disagreements about policies, he would support, embrace and move forward with the president’s agenda,” Gibbs said.
“Once it became clear after his nomination that Senator Gregg was not going to be supporting some of President Obama’s key economic priorities, it became necessary for Senator Gregg and the Obama administration to part ways,” Gibbs said. “We regret that he has had a change of heart.”
Gregg’s move dealt a fresh blow to Obama’s attempts to govern in a bipartisan manner and ease the bitter political partisanship that has engulfed US politics over the last two decades.
It was also another complication as he attempts to fill out his Cabinet.
Gregg was the second nominee for commerce secretary to withdraw: New Mexico Governor and former presidential candidate Bill Richardson stepped down over an inquiry into contracting orders in his home state.
Obama also lost another high-profile nominee, former senator Tom Daschle, who was his pick to serve as secretary of health and human services but saw his nomination consumed by a storm over unpaid taxes.
Gregg’s shock move on Thursday overshadowed Obama’s latest pitch for Republican support for his stimulus plan, delivered at a manufacturing plant run by Caterpillar Inc, a construction machine giant.
In an earlier repudiation of Obama’s political olive branch, not a single Republican voted for an initial version of the bill in the House of Representatives and only three broke ranks to back it in the Senate.
“It is time for Congress to act, and I hope they act in a bipartisan fashion,” Obama said during his visit to Caterpillar, which recently laid off more than 20,000 people.
“But no matter how they act, when they do, when they finally pass our plan, I believe it will be a major step forward on our path to economic recovery,” Obama said.
The president argued that the massive bill would unleash economic growth and recreate the jobs of millions of Americans who have fallen victim to the worst economic slump since the 1930s.
“The head of Caterpillar said that if Congress passes our plan, this company will be able to rehire some of the folks who were just laid off — and that’s a story I’m confident will be repeated at companies across the country,” Obama said.