It was just Monday when President Obama told a prime-time news conference that appointing three Republicans to his Cabinet reflected an “unprecedented” commitment to bipartisanship.
But by Thursday, with the abrupt withdrawal by Republican Sen. Judd Gregg from nomination to be Commerce secretary, the partisan divide in Washington looked as wide as ever, and Obama had suffered another setback in building his administration.
Gregg, of New Hampshire, cited “irresolvable conflicts” with the Obama administration over its economic stimulus plan and the 2010 U.S. census, which in recent days had become the focus of a partisan dispute over who should control the program.
The senator said he “admired” Obama’s efforts at bipartisan bridge-building. But he had decided that, as a conservative, joining the Democratic administration would be a “bridge too far.”
“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, for that matter, and be part of the team and not be able to be 100% with the team, 110% with the team,” Gregg told a Capitol Hill news conference.
Obama, speaking to reporters aboard Air Force One on a swing through Illinois, said the developments did not spell the end of his efforts at reaching out to Republicans. “I am going to keep on working at this,” he said. Americans are “desperate” for politicians to find common ground, he said.
Further showing the growing strain between the parties, the facts behind Gregg’s appointment and eventual withdrawal were argued through a series of testy exchanges.
White House officials were surprised and visibly annoyed by Gregg’s announcement. Obama’s press secretary, Robert Gibbs, noted in a written statement that the senator had “reached out” and “offered his name” to Obama’s team for the Commerce job and that 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.
Gregg disputed the White House account.
“One of the nice things about this business is everybody has a different recollection of what happened,” he said. “There is no question but that when they asked me if I would do the job, I said I would. And that’s the bottom line.”
The episode was the latest embarrassment for Obama’s team as it attempts to round out an administration that has had to navigate through several personnel problems.
Gregg had been the second choice for Commerce after New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson was forced to withdraw amid a political corruption investigation in his home state. Last week, Obama’s choice for Health and Human Services secretary, Tom Daschle, withdrew after revealing that he did not pay taxes on a chauffeur service provided by a friend.
Gregg said Thursday that his decision was not prompted by anything that arose in vetting him for the job. Rather, he said, he had struggled with the idea of pursuing an agenda that he did not necessarily agree with.
He described the dispute over the census, which is directed by the Commerce Department, as a “slight issue.” But his withdrawal came on the same day that House Republicans held a news conference to accuse the White House of politicizing the program by shifting control to White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, known as a sharp Democratic partisan.
The White House pledged to assert more control after Latino and black groups complained about the Gregg nomination, citing his actions in a dispute over how the census should reach minority and hard-to-count populations.
The census is sensitive because it is the basis for redrawing congressional and legislative district boundaries every 10 years, an intensely partisan process of back-room deal-making that can determine which party controls state capitals and Washington. Census findings also help determinehow money is distributed under many federal programs.
Republicans charged Thursday that Emanuel, who as a congressman was the top political strategist for House Democrats, was a “political animal” who could manipulate the census to seek to help expand his party’s majority.
Hours before Gregg’s withdrawal, Indiana Rep. Mike Pence, a member of the House GOP leadership, charged that if Obama “doesn’t trust Sen. Judd Gregg to oversee a fair and accurate census, he should withdraw the nomination.”
Gregg made his announcement just as Obama was beginning remarks at a Caterpillar Inc. plant in East Peoria, Ill., celebrating the imminent passage of the stimulus bill -- a bill that Gregg, even after being nominated as one of the president’s top economic officials, had so far refused to support.
White House officials offered conflicting accounts of the string of events.
Obama’s senior advisor, David Axelrod, told reporters that the president learned about Gregg’s withdrawal from the senator’s press release. Later, Gibbs said that Obama had spoken with Gregg on Wednesday and was informed then that he was withdrawing.
But Obama told reporters that he wasn’t sure if Gregg had made a final decision on his future when the two men met Wednesday at the White House to discuss the senator’s concerns about the job.
“Life is complicated,” Axelrod said as he spoke with reporters. Gibbs, standing nearby, finished the thought: “And strange.”
Christi Parsons of the Chicago Tribune, traveling with Obama, contributed to this report.