New Hampshire Sen. Judd Gregg, who has emerged as the front-runner for commerce secretary, has assured fellow Republicans that he won't take the job unless he's certain his replacement will line up with the GOP caucus, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said yesterday.
President Barack Obama is expected to announce Gregg's nomination as early as today.
When Obama's interest in Gregg became known Thursday, it created a little Republican angst: Democrats are tantalizingly close to gaining a filibuster-proof majority. They hold 56 seats, and the Senate's two independents caucus with them. A Democrat holds a slim lead in Minnesota's disputed Senate election; if it stands, Al Franken would become the 59th Democratic vote. Under Senate rules, 60 votes are required to limit debate and end a filibuster.
And New Hampshire's governor, a Democrat, holds the power to appoint a replacement for Gregg. But McConnell says he's not worried.
"Whoever is appointed to replace him will caucus with Senate Republicans," McConnell said in a morning interview on CBS' Face the Nation. "Senator 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."
New Hampshire Gov. John Lynch has said nothing publicly about which candidates he is considering as Gregg's potential replacement. His spokesman declined to discuss it yesterday.
But the state likely stands to benefit if the veteran lawmaker joins Obama's administration, and Senate Democrats like their chances for upending a Republican appointee next year better than those of beating an incumbent Gregg. That holds true even though the state has been trending blue.
Meanwhile, as senators contemplated Gregg's possible departure, the chamber's Finance Committee prepared to grill former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle over news that he failed to pay more than $128,000 in taxes for the use of a car and driver from 2005 to 2007.
After his nomination to head Health and Human Services, 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, according to his spokeswoman, and his accountant told him in late December he should pay back taxes. Daschle then 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 Senate committee had questioned Daschle and reported to him before reaching a conclusion about the magnitude of the tax problem.
Other Republican lawmakers were reserved in their criticism, though many, such as Sen. Susan M. Collins of Maine, said the matter calls 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 leaped to his defense, with Sen. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois calling him "one of the most honest people I've ever known or worked with in public life."
Democratic senators predicted that Daschle's confirmation would go through, in no small part because he is a one-time leader of the Senate and popular with former colleagues.