WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama's Republican nominee for Commerce secretary withdrew from consideration on Thursday, citing "irresolvable conflicts" over the $789 billion economic stimulus plan and conceding that he made a mistake in accepting the job.
"This is simply a bridge too far for me," said Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., a fiscal conservative, in a news conference explaining his decision. He will remain in the Senate.
The normally reserved New Englander was animated as he described an initial "euphoria" about being asked to join the administration and "genuine belief" in Obama's leadership. But he said he told the White House several days ago he would not take the job.
"I realize that to withdraw at this point is really unfair in many ways, but to go forward . . . would have been an even bigger mistake."
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Gregg noted that he and Obama are "functioning from a different set of views on many critical items of policy."
Gregg's decision underscores how difficult it may be for the new Democratic president to make good on his pledge to move beyond partisanship, as he pursues ideologically divisive policy goals such as overhauling national health insurance. His economic recovery plan got no GOP House votes last month and only three in the Senate this week.
"It's better we discovered it now rather than later," said White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel in an interview with several reporters. He said that Gregg had called him Monday and met with Obama on Wednesday.
Republican lawmakers issued statements praising Gregg's decision and criticizing the stimulus plan. They also criticized a White House plan to have the director of the Census, which is in the Commerce Department, report to the White House; Republicans interpreted that as an end-run around Gregg, although Gregg said it was only a "slight catalyzing issue" in his decision to withdraw.
Gregg said he appreciated Obama's willingness to reach across the aisle and that they'd talked about their differences before he accepted the nomination. However, "unfortunately we did not adequately focus on these concerns," he said in a written statement.
In a terse statement, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said: "We regret that he has had a change of heart." Gibbs said that Gregg had sought the job, promising to support Obama's agenda, and that once it became clear that wasn't possible, "it became necessary for Senator Gregg and the Obama administration to part ways."
The first public hints of trouble emerged on Tuesday, when Gregg abstained from a Senate vote on the stimulus bill that Obama supported, one that all but three of Gregg's GOP colleagues rejected. Republicans say the stimulus costs too much, that Democrats shut them out of its drafting, that it didn't include enough tax cuts and that Democrats stuffed in ideological projects that won't stimulate the economy.
But from the start, Gregg was an unlikely fit to lead a department that he'd actually once voted to abolish.
Gregg, 61, who faces reelection next year in a state that has increasingly voted Democratic, said he would "probably not" seek reelection. He is a former New Hampshire governor and former member of the House of Representatives. Elected to the Senate in 1992, he is the senior Republican on the Senate Budget Committee and also serves on the Appropriations Committee. But because of his Commerce nomination, he was not a visible player in the stimulus talks.
Gregg had been Obama's third GOP nominee. Word of his withdrawal came as Obama appeared in Peoria, Ill, with his Transportation secretary, Ray LaHood, also a Republican.
Gregg was Obama's second Commerce nominee, and fourth nominee overall, to withdraw from consideration.
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democrat, withdrew his nomination as Obama's first Commerce secretary pick last month because a federal grand jury is investigating alleged wrongdoing with state contracts, and the probe has reached into the governor's office. Richardson has not been personally implicated, however.
Controversies over unpaid taxes prompted withdrawals by Health and Human Services nominee Tom Daschle and Nancy Killefer to be Chief Performance Officer, and tarnished Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner's confirmation.
(Steven Thomma contributed to this article.)
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