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Judd Gregg: Point Man or Hit Man?

With an unofficial seat at the Senate Republican leadership table, it’s no accident that Sen. Judd Gregg (N.H.) has been at the center of nearly every major floor fight this Congress.

In fact, Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) voiced his frustration with Gregg last week, noting that the three-term New Hampshire Republican seemed to be “the designated ‘see-if-we-can-mess-up-the-legislation’ guy this year.”

Reid likened Gregg to “somebody who comes into a basketball game, not to score points, just to kind of rough people up, just to kind of get the game going in a different direction.”

In response, Gregg said on the floor, “I appreciate the Senator’s comments. I take them as a compliment. I have been active legislatively. That is, obviously, our job.”

While more junior Republicans have independently mounted floor fights that won praise from their leadership, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has been regularly turning to Gregg to help him find ways to tie the Democratic majority in knots.

“He’s arguably our best sort of idea guy,” McConnell said in an interview Friday. “I rely on him heavily. He’s a major player in the Senate whether he sits at the leadership table or not.”

But Gregg does sit at the leadership table, because McConnell has asked him, along with Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah), to join the weekly Republican leadership meeting as an informal “senior adviser.”

Gregg said he acts as a “freelance idea person” in leadership meetings at McConnell’s request.

Senate Minority Whip Trent Lott (R-Miss.) said Gregg brings to the table previous leadership experience as Chief Deputy Whip under both Lott and former Senate Republican Whip Don Nickles (Okla.). But that position does not require election by the Senate Republican Conference.

“I’ve always wondered why he didn’t run for a leadership position,” said Lott, who speculated that Gregg would find it too “restrictive.”

No matter how he got to the table, Gregg’s ideas appear to carry a lot of weight with McConnell, who has twice in the past month and a half drawn the proverbial line in the sand over Republicans’ right to have a vote on a Gregg proposal.

“I think of him not as the guy sent into the game to kind of rough people up,” said McConnell. “He’s the smart-guy point guard, the one who’s good at ideas that will benefit the overall team.”

Gregg’s proposals also have won the broad support of his GOP colleagues, who have stood with him and McConnell on tough votes that have not always played well in the media but have established the new Republican minority as a force to be reckoned with.

One Senate Republican aide said Gregg’s ideas have been well-received because, “He’s viewed as a thinker. … He’s definitely known for being stubborn, usually with good reason.”

Gregg said he thinks his ideas have caught fire with his colleagues because, “Most of the issues I tend to push are things I think are at the essence of Republican governance.”

A good example of that was Gregg’s ultimately successful attempt to get a vote on an amendment designed to give the president line-item rescission authority over earmarks in spending bills.

Lott said Democrats opened up debate about the abuse of earmarks in spending bills during consideration of a lobbying and ethics bill in early January and then tried to prevent Gregg from getting a vote on his proposal by claiming it was not germane.

Lott said Gregg pleaded his case to the entire Republican Conference and the majority agreed that it was reasonable to band together to try to force Democrats to vote on the amendment. While the proposal was defeated, Republicans did secure an agreement to have a vote on the line-item plan during debate on a bill to increase the minimum wage.

While the line-item rescission amendment rose to the top through an organic process, Lott said Republicans made a more calculated decision last week when they insisted that the Senate vote on Gregg’s nonbinding resolution in support of U.S. troops as a foil for the Democrats’ preferred resolution condemning President Bush’s plan to send more troops to Iraq.

“That was a situation where sometimes he’s asked to put on his thinking cap and come up with ideas,” Lott said.

McConnell said Reid’s insistence that Republicans get only one vote on an alternate Iraq resolution spurred more interest in Gregg’s bill.

“All of our Senators agreed that if we were only to have one amendment, that that summed up where we were,” McConnell said.

Indeed, Gregg’s proposal supplanted a popular resolution by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) that would have refrained from criticizing the president but set benchmarks for success in Iraq.

Gregg said the Senate Republican Conference’s decision to rally around his resolution “was sort of a surprise to me. I didn’t expect it to become such a cause celebre.”

And even though Republicans were roundly criticized in the media — and by Democrats — for derailing debate on the nonbinding Iraq War resolution, Republicans say they have no “buyer’s remorse” about standing by Gregg and blocking the Senate from bringing debate on the resolution to a close.

“The deck was stacked against us,” said the Senate Republican aide. “There’s no way in hell that the liberal media was going to paint us as anything but obstructionist.”

While Republicans may have lost the public relations battle on the Iraq debate, Democrats acknowledged Gregg’s savvy use of Senate rules.

Said one Democratic leadership aide, “We don’t know if this is a unique set of circumstances or if this is going to continue.”

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