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2009: Sen. Judd Gregg

Senior Political Reporter

December 30. 2012 4:44AM

Sen. Judd Gregg 

He's long been a fixture in New Hampshire and on Capitol Hill.

He's long been a powerful United States senator and a major political player on the state and national scene.

But, after more than 30 years in politics, Judd Gregg outdid himself in 2009. From his exclusive role as chief Senate Republican negotiator in the talks that shaped the Wall Street bailout to his dire warnings about the federal deficit and his active opposition to the Democratic health-care reform plan, Gregg last year had a major role in the national policy debate and became the leading voice of the GOP in the Senate.

His agreement last winter to become Democratic President Barack Obama's nominee as U.S. Secretary of Commerce, and then to withdraw, provided dramatic political theater.

And his decision not to seek reelection this year and retire from elective politics not only prompted the resignation of the state attorney general, who is now one of five people seeking his seat, but it has again made New Hampshire a nationally watched battleground in the raging tug of war over the future of the Republican Party.

For the impact he has had on national domestic policy and national and local politics, Sen. Judd Gregg, 62, is the 2009 New Hampshire Union Leader Citizen of the Year .

The award, created by the Union Leader and Sunday News in 2004, recognizes an individual or group who, in the newspapers' view, has had the biggest influence or effect on New Hampshire.

The first award went to the New Hampshire men and women serving in the armed forces around the world. Subsequent awards have gone to Gov. John Lynch, New Hampshire's police, Secretary of State William Gardner, and former Attorney General Kelly Ayotte.

National prominence

By the time the calendar turned to 2009, Gregg already had been front-page news.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., in September 2008 named Gregg the sole negotiator in the intense talks to save failing financial institutions.

"He has an encyclopedic knowledge of financial markets and has such extraordinary judgment," McConnell said in a telephone interview.

Gregg, in a separate interview, said, "It was a position of significant responsibility, and it was an extraordinarily intense time because we were truly on the verge of a massive financial collapse, which would have led to a Depression-like scenario."

He pressed for the package to protect the taxpayers by insisting that it include "language that all the proceeds from paybacks from these government loans would go to reduce the deficit.

"And even though the President and his people are now trying to find ways to get around it," he added, "that language is very firm in this bill."

McConnell said Gregg's work on the Troubled Asset Relief Program was only the tip of the iceberg.

"He is also the budget expert in our conference," he said. "Nobody else comes close to his ability to master the complex funding mechanisms and spending programs of the federal government."

McConnell also called Gregg "arguably our most articulate member in pointing out the spending spree the new administration and the new majority in the Congress have been on all year."

Yet, early in 2009, Gregg found himself in agreement with the new President on several issues, including TARP and key Cabinet appointments: treasury secretary Timothy Geithner, defense secretary Robert Gates, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

In late January, Gregg lauded Obama for "reaching out aggressively to Republican senators to involve them in some of the pending issues, especially dealing with the economy and financial crisis."

In early February, Obama shocked the political establishment in Washington and New Hampshire by nominating Gregg for the position of federal commerce secretary, calling him "one of the Republican Party's most respected voices and skillful negotiators," and "a master of reaching across the aisle to get things done."

That official announcement on Feb. 3 ended a wild week of political maneuvering that saw Democratic Gov. John Lynch anger many in his own party by agreeing to appoint Gregg's longtime friend and former aide Republican Bonnie Newman, rather than a Democrat, to be Gregg's temporary successor.

But the plan quickly disintegrated, first as the Obama White House moved to take control of the census bureau from the commerce department, and then, as Gregg came to realize that he could not support Obama 100 percent of the time, as he believes Cabinet members should.

Gregg withdrew, saying he had made a mistake and had been uncharacteristically caught up in the "euphoria" of the moment.

Political fallout

Gregg also announced that he would not seek reelection, prompting a flurry of speculation among Republicans about who would run to try to succeed him.

Democratic Rep. Paul Hodes already had strongly indicated in December 2008 that he would challenge Gregg for the Senate seat. He soon became a full-fledged candidate and so far is the only Democrat running.

Republican attention immediately focussed first on former Sen. John E. Sununu, who had lost in November 2008 to Democrat Jeanne Shaheen. But on July 1, Sununu announced he would not run, and six days later, Kelly Ayotte resigned as attorney general, after telling Lynch that she would serve her full term if reappointed, to seek the seat.

The repercussions of the Gregg decision continue today and will intensify in 2010. By year's end, attorney Ovide Lamontagne and wealthy businessmen Bill Binnie and James Bender had joined Ayotte in a primary battle.

Veteran political analyst Dean Spiliotes said the early intensity of the GOP primary campaign has made New Hampshire one of several focal points across the country energizing "movement conservatives and the tea-party movement."

Had Gregg decided to seek another term, Spiliotes said, the race would not be attracting as much attention at this point because there probably would have been no GOP primary. With Gregg out, national Democratic and Republican organizations already are pouring much attention and money into New Hampshire.

Perhaps liberated by his decisions to withdraw from the commerce slot and to retire next year, Gregg during the summer and fall became more prominent, appearing almost daily on television news talk shows.

"These networks see in Judd Gregg someone who is smart and doesn't have a political ax to grind because he's not running again," said Concord attorney Tom Rath, a longtime friend and supporter.

On the stimulus, the budget and health-care reform, Gregg told the Sunday News in mid-December, "This Congress is basically spending this country into bankruptcy and doing it in a very conscious way of trying to 'Europeanize' America, where you have the government running vast amounts of the private sector."

Late in the year, Gregg was still appearing on television blasting the Democrats' health care-bill and the Obama administration's proposal to use unspent TARP funds and loans repaid by the troubled financial institutions to finance a $100 billion jobs package instead of paying down the deficit.

"It's an outrage," he said. "An absolute outrage. And you know who pays the bills? Our kids. It's not right. It's not fair and it's not appropriate."

Active to the end

Gregg drew more attention when he wrote a Dec. 1 letter to his GOP Senate colleagues, accompanied by what Democrats and liberals called an "obstruction manual" detailing how the GOP minority can use the rules of the Senate to stall the health-care bill.

"We, the minority party must use the tools we have under Senate rules to insist on a full, complete and fully informed debate on the health care legislation," he wrote.

Gregg also has taken the lead on opposition to the Democrats' budget and the pending move to increase the debt ceiling.

He has been on the forefront in recent weeks on federal reserve regulatory reform and is intimately involved in Senate efforts to reform the federal financial regulatory system, co-chairing a bipartisan task force focusing on derivatives -- a dry but, Gregg said, "huge, very complex and very important issue."

As the ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee, Gregg, along with Democratic committee chairman Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., is leading the charge for a bipartisan task force to investigate ways to cut the deficit.

Looking back at the year, to what does Gregg attribute his high profile?

"It's hard to say, but I suppose there are two reasons," he said. "One is that these are issues I have some expertise on. And, second, because I take the New Hampshire approach of not trying to obfuscate words in political dialogue."

Next year at this time, Gregg will be ending his career in politics -- a career that began as a state executive councilor, followed by four terms in the U.S. House, two terms as governor and three terms in the Senate.

He said he doesn't anticipate regretting his decision.

As for 2009, Gregg said, "It's been enjoyable to be in the middle of all the major fights on all the major issues, and hopefully to have had a constructive impact. It's been a year of activity and action, but, on the other hand, you know, I'm not happy with a lot of the outcomes because in some areas we are still sending our country on a fiscally insolvent path."

McConnell said he wishes Gregg would reconsider his decision to retire.

"We tried," he said. "Senators come and senators go, but when this senator goes, he's going to leave quite a vacuum."

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