By and  on February 4, 2009

WASHINGTON — President Obama tapped Sen. Judd Gregg as his nominee for commerce secretary on Tuesday, putting a third-term Republican senator with a strong pro-trade record in the thick of the administration’s efforts to turn around the economy.

While introducing his putative commerce secretary, Obama stressed the importance of the Commerce Department’s role in an economic recovery and signaled Gregg’s experiences as a businessman, New Hampshire state official, congressman and governor of New Hampshire gave him a great understanding of what keeps the U.S. economy running and helps it function better.

“Clearly, Judd and I don’t agree on every issue, most notably who should have won the election,” Obama said. “But we do agree on the urgent need to get American businesses and families back on their feet. We see eye to eye on conducting the nation’s business in a responsible, transparent and accountable manner.”

Obama was forced to choose a new commerce secretary after New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson withdrew his nomination over a federal grand jury investigation into funds donated to his political action committee.

If confirmed by the Senate, Gregg (R., N.H.) will head an agency that monitors industry trade through its Office of Textiles & Apparel and makes decisions in trade remedy cases. Part of the larger mission of the sprawling department is to spur economic growth and job creation, as Obama battles to secure his economic stimulus package.

Gregg’s appointment could change the balance of power in the Senate, where Democrats now control 58 votes — 56 Democrats and two Independents who normally vote with them — just shy of the 60 votes needed to overcome Republican filibusters on party-line measures. The outcome in the disputed Minnesota Senate contest could bring the majority to 59. But Republican leaders and Gregg said they have received assurances from New Hampshire Gov. John Lynch, a Democrat, that he will appoint a Republican to fill Gregg’s seat until 2010. Lynch has not publicly confirmed that.

Since taking his Senate seat in 1993, Gregg voted in favor of the North American Free Trade Agreement and the Central American Free Trade Agreement, as well as presidential fast-track authority. He also voted for legislation that established the World Trade Organization and later supported the agreement that established permanent normal trade relations with China, paving its way into the WTO.

“I think he’s got a pretty good record on trade,” said Erik Autor, vice president and international trade counsel at the National Retail Federation. “I think somebody like Gregg who has a good relationship with and respect of the business community is a good choice.”

Autor acknowledged that pressure from Congress and directives from Obama could force Gregg to take a more aggressive stance in trade remedy cases, involving dumped and subsidized imports, that could lead to punitive action against imports.

Auggie Tantillo, executive director of the American Manufacturing Trade Action Coalition, said he expects a “fairly traditional Republican view on trade, one that is fairly aggressive in liberalizing the U.S. market and expanding our free trade agreements” from Gregg, but “I would hope that he would bring a very aggressive enforcement mentality. This administration has made a general commitment to that.”

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