WASHINGTON — Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) is the leading candidate to become President Obama's Commerce secretary, an administration official said Saturday, adding that a decision could come as early as Monday.
Gregg's appointment would add another Republican to Obama's Cabinet at a time when the president is preaching bipartisanship and working to build GOP support for his agenda.
It would also have the potential to tip the balance of power in the Senate: New Hampshire's governor, a Democrat, could name a Democrat to succeed Gregg.
Depending on the outcome of the contested Senate race in Minnesota, a Democratic appointee from New Hampshire could give the party 60 seats in the Senate, counting the two independents who caucus with Democrats -- enough to shut down Republican filibusters and smooth the way for Obama's plans whether there is bipartisan support for them or not.
A spokesman for Gov. John Lynch declined to discuss possible candidates for the potential Senate opening. Right now, said spokesman Colin Manning, "this is between the White House and Sen. Gregg."
A spokeswoman for Gregg also refused to discuss the possibility.
Still, reports circulated that Republicans were trying to work out a deal with Lynch to keep the seat in their party's hands if Gregg vacates it. Democrats think they would stand to benefit whether or not he was succeeded by a Democrat, reasoning that a Republican newcomer would be easier to defeat next year.
The Obama economic team would be adding a strong voice for business in Gregg, 61, the lead GOP negotiator on last year's $700-billion financial bailout. A 16-year veteran of the Senate and ranking member of its budget committee, Gregg is a fiscal conservative from a state with a noted aversion to government spending and taxes. (He also has the distinction of having won $853,492 in the Powerball lottery in 2005.)
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democrat, was Obama's first choice for the job. Richardson took himself out of contention not long after his nomination, citing a grand jury investigation into how state contracts have been issued during his tenure.
Gregg's appointment could change not just the Senate, but the overall power equilibrium in Washington.
Obama has been reaching out to Republicans for weeks now and speaking of the importance of cooperation. He named Ray LaHood -- a Republican congressman from Illinois -- as Transportation secretary, and asked Robert M. Gates, President Bush's Defense secretary, to stay on. The Pentagon chief is a registered independent but says he considers himself a Republican.
But congressional Republicans already complain that their Democratic colleagues are being heavy-handed with them, and a more pronounced shift in the Senate could exacerbate tensions.
Democrats hold a 56-41 advantage over Republicans in the Senate; the two independents also are aligned with the majority. Still to be decided is Minnesota, where a recount gave Democrat Al Franken a 225-vote lead over GOP incumbent Norm Coleman -- a result Coleman is contesting in court.
The appointment of the Commerce secretary would round out the Obama economic team at a crucial moment. The House passed Obama's economic stimulus plan last week, with no Republican votes, and the bill now moves to the Senate.
On Saturday morning, Obama pledged to work for speedy, bipartisan support of the plan, as well as for a strategy to revive the U.S. financial system.
Angry about news that corporate executives had handed out millions in employee bonuses in 2008, the president hinted he would take steps to stop corporate executives from dipping into bailout money for employee bonuses.
But neither Obama nor his top advisors were clear about how far the administration would go to curb executive compensation as they draft their blueprint. In an interview with Bloomberg television on Saturday, Obama political advisor David Axelrod stopped short of embracing a ban on bonuses for companies that receive taxpayer-funded bailouts.
The plan is expected to be unveiled in the next week or so, with Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner at work on a strategy meant to loosen the credit market, lower mortgage costs for families and open up loans for small businesses.