Sen. Judd Gregg out as commerce nominee

WASHINGTON — Saying “I made a mistake,” Republican Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire abruptly withdrew as commerce secretary nominee on Thursday and left the fledgling White House suddenly coping with Barack Obama’s third Cabinet withdrawal.

Gregg cited “irresolvable conflicts” with Obama’s policies, specifically mentioning the $790 billion economic stimulus bill and 2010 census in a statement released without warning by his Senate office.

Later, at a news conference in the Capitol, he sounded more contrite.

“The president asked me to do it,” he said of the job offer. “I said, yes. That was my mistake.”

Obama offered a somewhat different account from Gregg.

“It comes as something of a surprise, because the truth, you know, Mr. Gregg approached us with interest and seemed enthusiastic,” Obama said in.

Later, he said he was glad Gregg “searched his heart” and changed course now before the Senate confirmed him to the Cabinet post. He also said Gregg’s withdrawal won’t deter him from working with Republicans and trying to change the partisan ways of Washington.

“Clearly he was just having second thoughts about leaving the Senate, a place where he’s thrived,” Obama said.

The unexpected withdrawal came just three weeks into Obama’s presidency and on the heels of several other Cabinet troubles. The new president is in the midst of expending political capital in Washington — and around the country — for his economic package and is seeking to move forward with an ambitious agenda in the midst of an economic recession while the country continues to face threats abroad.

Now Obama also finds himself needing to fill two vacancies — at Commerce and at the Health and Human Services Department. Former Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle withdrew his nomination for that post amid a tax controversy. Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner was confirmed despite revelations that he had not paid some of his taxes on time.

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson was Obama’s first choice as commerce secretary. He withdrew in early January following disclosure that a grand jury is investigating allegations of wrongdoing in the awarding of contracts in his state. Richardson has not been implicated personally.

Gregg was one of three Republicans Obama had put in his Cabinet to emphasize his campaign pledge that he would be an agent of bipartisan change.

White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel said Gregg told the White House early this week that he was having second thoughts and met with Obama about them during an Oval Office meeting on Wednesday. Emanuel said there were no hard feelings and “it’s better we figured this out now than later.”

“He went into this eyes open and he realized over time it wasn’t going to be a good fit,” Emanuel said.

Gregg said he’d always been a strong fiscal conservative and added: “It really wasn’t a good pick.”

“For 30 years, I’ve been my own person in charge of my own views,” Gregg said, “and I guess I hadn’t really focused on the job of working for somebody else and carrying their views, and so this is basically where it came out.”

Gregg, 61, said he changed his mind after realizing he wasn’t ready to “trim my sails” to be a part of Obama’s team.

“I just sensed that I was not going to be good at being anything other than myself,” he said.

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