WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama is considering picking Republican Senator Judd Gregg of New Hampshire as commerce secretary, a Democratic source said on Thursday.
The source, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the selection process, said Obama and his aides “are definitely looking at Gregg. It’s not a done deal, but they’re asking key senators if he would be acceptable.”
Gregg was mum on whether he was being considered for the post, telling Reuters, “I have no comment.”
White House spokesman Ben LaBolt said no decision had been made on the commerce job. “We’re not playing the name game,” he said.
Just last week, Silicon Valley executive John Thompson had been the leading contender, but the Obama selection team apparently backed off in favor of Gregg, the source said.
If Gregg left the Senate, the state’s Democratic governor, John Lynch, could name a Democrat to replace him. If that occurred and Al Franken survives a court challenge to his apparent narrow victory in Minnesota, the Democrats would have a majority of 60 seats in the Senate, enough to prevent procedural roadblocks to legislation.
But the source predicted Lynch would more likely appoint a Republican, saying that naming a fellow Democrat “could be a highly unpopular move in the state.”
Obama’s first pick for the commerce post, New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, withdrew from consideration earlier this month in the face of a legal inquiry.
Obama previously named former Republican Illinois Rep. Ray LaHood as transportation secretary. He also kept on former Republican President George W. Bush’s defense secretary, Robert Gates.
The reports caught the business community by surprise. “It’s hard to believe he would accept” and give Democrats a 60-seat majority, one business lobbyist said of Judd.
Many have been expecting Obama to tap Thompson, the chief executive of software company Symantec for the commerce post. High-tech groups were particularly excited at the possibility of seeing one of their own in the job.
As pressure mounts over an $800 billion to $900 billion economic stimulus plan that Republicans may want to try to block, the party could try to talk Gregg out of taking the job if it were offered.
Gregg could be seen on the Senate floor late on Thursday taking a ribbing from some of his fellow senators about the reports. His response could not be heard.
(Additional reporting by Donna Smith)
Reporting by JoAnne Allen; Editing by Peter Cooney