WASHINGTON — Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, who has emerged as the front-runner for Commerce secretary, assured fellow Republicans that he would not take the job unless he was certain his replacement would line up with the GOP caucus, the Senate's Republican leader said Sunday.
President Obama is expected to announce Gregg's nomination as early as today.
When Obama's interest in Gregg became known Thursday, it created some Republican angst because Democrats are tantalizingly close to a filibuster-proof majority. They hold 56 seats, and the Senate's two independents caucus with them. Democrat Al Franken holds a slim lead in Minnesota's disputed election, and if it stands, he would become the 59th Democratic vote. Under Senate rules, 60 votes are required to limit debate and hold off a filibuster.
New Hampshire's governor, a Democrat, holds the power to appoint a replacement for Gregg.
But Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said he wasn't worried.
"Whoever is appointed to replace him will caucus with Senate Republicans," McConnell said on CBS' "Face the Nation."
"Sen. Gregg has told me that if he were to take this appointment, it would not alter the makeup of the Senate in terms of the majority and the minority," he said.
New Hampshire Gov. John Lynch has not said anything publicly about who he is considering as Gregg's potential replacement. His spokesman declined to discuss it Sunday.
But the state probably stands to benefit if the veteran lawmaker joins Obama's administration. And Senate Democrats like their chances of upending a Republican or an independent appointee next year better than those of beating Gregg. That holds true even though the state has been trending Democratic.
The Senate Finance Committee planned to meet today to discuss the nomination.
Obama's first nominee for Commerce secretary, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, withdrew, citing a grand jury investigation into how state contracts have been issued during his tenure.
As senators contemplated Gregg's possible departure, the finance committee prepared to grill former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle over news that he failed to pay more than $128,000 in taxes, partly for the use of a car and driver from 2005 to 2007.
After his nomination to head the Health and Human Services Department, the South Dakota Democrat paid more than $140,000 in back taxes and interest primarily from his consulting work for InterMedia Advisors, owned by longtime Democratic donor Leo J. Hindery Jr. -- who also provided Daschle with the car and driver.
Daschle asked his accountant in June to look into the matter, his spokeswoman said, and his accountant told him in late December that he should pay back taxes. Daschle amended his returns, paid his back taxes and told the Obama team about it, administration officials said.
McConnell questioned the thoroughness of Obama's vetting process, saying he would wait until the committee had questioned Daschle and reported back to him before reaching a conclusion about the magnitude of the tax problem.
Other Republican lawmakers also were reserved in their criticism of Daschle -- even though many, like Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, said the matter called for scrutiny.
"This is a legitimate issue," Collins said on CNN's "State of the Union." "We need some answers. We need more of an explanation than we have now. It's an awful lot of money."
Daschle's fellow Democrats came to his defense, with Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) on "Fox News Sunday" calling him "one of the most honest people I've ever known or worked with in public life."
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) echoed the sentiment.
"I understand that there are concerns being raised regarding mistakes he has already corrected," she said in a statement, "but I strongly believe Tom Daschle merits confirmation as secretary of Health and Human Services."
Aides to Obama said the president was sticking by Daschle.
Democratic senators predicted that Daschle's confirmation would still go through, in no small part because he was popular with his former Senate colleagues.
Likewise, senators were praising Gregg as a smart choice to serve as Commerce secretary, despite GOP concerns about the Senate's balance of power. Republican colleagues said they doubted Gregg would leave them in the lurch.
Gregg did not respond to requests for comment Sunday.