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Gregg declines to cast any votes in Senate

By Michael Kranish
Globe Staff / February 7, 2009
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WASHINGTON - Senator Judd Gregg, the New Hampshire Republican nominated to be commerce secretary, once was seen as a key ally in President Obama's effort to win bipartisan support for his economic stimulus bill.

But Gregg's spokeswoman said yesterday that the senator would recuse himself from voting on the bill, and would not even participate in debate on it.

In fact, the spokeswoman said, Gregg will not vote on any legislation or other matter before the Senate, in committee or on the floor.

In recusing himself, Gregg deprived Obama of a potential key vote in support of the package, as well the influence Gregg might have had in persuading other Republicans to follow his lead.

Gregg's spokeswoman, Laena Fallon, would not speak about the senator's decision other than to say, "He thinks this is the most appropriate thing to do right now." A White House spokesman declined comment, deferring to Gregg's office.

When Obama introduced the senator as his Commerce Department secretary nominee on Tuesday, the president underscored the importance of passing the stimulus plan in a bipartisan fashion. Gregg then left the impression that he supported Obama's policy, although he did not explicitly endorse the Democratic stimulus proposal before the Senate.

"You've outlined an extraordinarily bold and aggressive, effective and comprehensive plan for how we can get this country moving," Gregg said to Obama at the nomination ceremony. "This is not a time for partisanship. This is not a time when we should stand in our ideological corners and shout at each other. This is a time to govern and govern well."

But now, Gregg's decision to recuse himself from voting is bound to raise questions about why he is remaining in office if he won't perform such an essential duty of a senator as voting on legislation. It also may raise questions about whether he is seeking to avoid putting himself in the embarrassing position of voting against Obama's top economic priority.

Carl Tobias, a professor at the University of Richmond School of Law, said yesterday that he understood that Gregg wanted to avoid casting votes while his nomination is pending to avoid any appearance of impropriety, but he said it was not necessary. He said that a member of Congress usually recuses himself from voting on a matter when there is a personal or financial conflict with legislation.

"It seems that he could continue to discharge his duties as senator by participating in the debate on the stimulus and voting," Tobias said. Every senator knows that Gregg has been picked by Obama for the Commerce job, and "they can always discount what he says accordingly."

In an interview last week, shortly before word leaked out that he was to be the nominee, Gregg said he hoped to play a key role in helping Obama win passage of the bill. While Gregg said he could not support the bill as it was written by the House, he saw room for compromise if spending were cut and funds were provided to stop home foreclosures.

"I've talked to the White House, given them some ideas," Gregg said last week. "I think it is good for the nation if we can do a bipartisan, substantive" piece of legislation. Gregg's work as a deal broker, however, apparently ended as soon as it became clear that Obama would make him the Commerce pick.

Gregg has said he won't resign until he is confirmed for the Commerce post. If he were to resign now, Democrats would need only 59 votes to overcome potential Republican procedural hurdles instead of the current 60.

There are currently 99 senators, with a Minnesota seat still vacant and being contested in the courts. Under Senate rules, 60 votes are needed to overcome a filibuster when 99 or 100 senators are in office, but only 59 votes would be needed to overcome a filibuster if there are 98 senators, a Senate official said.

New Hampshire's Democratic governor, John Lynch, plans to appoint a Republican, Bonnie Newman, to replace Gregg.

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