WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama is poised to pick a Republican senator, Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, as his commerce secretary, but the state's Democratic governor will likely fill the vacancy with another Republican, leaving Democrats just shy of a filibuster-proof Senate.
Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader in the Senate, said he has Gregg's assurances that New Hampshire Gov. John Lynch would appoint a Republican to Gregg's seat.
"In other words, whoever is appointed to replace him would caucus with Senate Republicans, so I think it would have no impact on the balance of power in the Senate." McConnell told "Face the Nation" on CBS.
If that happens, the Democrats will be no closer to their goal of holding 60 Senate seats, enough to cut off Republican filibusters if all Democrats vote together. They now have 56 votes. Two independents usually vote with the Democrats, giving them 58 votes. The outcome in a still-disputed Senate election in Minnesota could bring that to 59 votes.
The Republican expected to get the seat until a new election is held in two years is Bonnie Newman, who served as Gregg's chief of staff when Gregg was in the House. She is a veteran of the Reagan White House. Under the deal that has been worked out, she would not run in the 2010 election.
The move would allow Gregg to become the third Republican in the Cabinet without being blamed for delivering Democrats complete control of the Senate. It also would spare Gregg a difficult re-election bid and open the door for a head-to-head contest in 2010 without an incumbent.
An administration official said Sunday evening that the White House would worry about the Cabinet pick, not the politics.
"The president will choose the best person for the job, and if it's Senator Gregg, then Governor Lynch will have the sole responsibility for choosing his replacement," the official said on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
Gregg has told his GOP colleagues that Lynch was unlikely to name a Democratic replacement, officials say. That move would leave Democrats shy of the 60 votes required to end debate in the 100-member chamber and, thus, unchecked legislative power.
Democratic leaders have warned supporters in private that Gregg's departure would not automatically mean a Democratic replacement.
Lynch's spokesman, Colin Manning, declined comment on any agreement among the players, saying only "this situation is still between the White House and Senator Gregg."
Gregg spokeswoman Laena Fallon had no comment on McConnell's statement.
Newman's name has climbed to the top of Lynch's short list of names, officials said. She served in the administrations of both Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. She was Gregg's top aide when he was in the U.S. House, served as a Harvard dean and was one of Lynch's first Republican supporters.
Others being discussed include former Republican state House Speaker Doug Scamman, another Lynch ally.
In spite of being in the minority, Republicans can bottle up legislation through a filibuster as long as they retain at least 41 votes willing to oppose a measure.
McConnell's second-in-command, Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., praised Obama's consideration of Gregg, noting the uncertainty that Lynch would appoint a fellow Democrat to replace Gregg.
"I'm not suggesting a deal at all," said Kyl, who appeared on "FOX News Sunday." "I'm just suggesting that Senator Gregg clearly has thought this through."
Lynch, a political moderate who named a Republican as his attorney general and is friends with Gregg, enjoys broad popularity and won re-election last year with 70 percent of the vote. Picking a Republican could help him build on his governing coalition.
If Gregg were nominated, he would be Obama's second choice. A grand jury investigation over how state contracts were issued to political donors led New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson to withdraw from consideration.