Environmental activists in the Maryland Senate said yesterday that they have the votes to defeat Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s nominee to head the Department of the Environment, and Senate Republicans are discussing strategies to help the new governor save face.
Among the options: Prevent the Senate from voting on Lynn Buhl, a former auto industry lawyer and environmental official from Michigan. Without a clear rejection from the full Senate, Buhl could continue to serve as secretary of the environment until next January, when Ehrlich (R) would be required to resubmit her appointment for Senate consideration.
"That is a strategy that's being considered," said Senate Minority Leader J. Lowell Stoltzfus (R-Somerset). "Whether it will happen or not, I don't know."
The strategy depends, however, on the cooperation of the Senate's Democratic leaders. Yesterday, they said they are not inclined to back down from the fight.
"She will come to the floor on Friday," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Prince George's), who opposes Buhl and has called on Ehrlich to withdraw the nomination. "In fairness to the public and the rules of the Senate, she should just come to the floor."
On Monday, the Senate panel that vets gubernatorial appointments voted 10 to 9 to urge the Senate to reject Buhl, who has been criticized by environmental organizations as being too friendly to big business and other polluters and unqualified to lead the state agency in charge of enforcing environmental regulations. If the Senate accepts that recommendation, Ehrlich would become the first governor in Maryland history to be denied a Cabinet appointee, an embarrassing sign of weakness for the new administration.
After the panel's action, a furious Ehrlich slapped back at environmental activists, pulling his support from a bill that would increase penalties on polluters. He also launched an aggressive lobbying campaign to win a majority in the 47-member chamber. Republicans said the governor would use every tool at his disposal, from veto threats to favorable treatment in the budget, to win Buhl's confirmation.
With 14 Republican senators, Ehrlich needs at least 10 Democrats to save the nomination. Yesterday, Ehrlich's appointments secretary, Lawrence J. Hogan Jr., and former Republican senator Martin G. Madden worked the chamber as Buhl hustled to meetings with undecided Democrats, including Katherine A. Klausmeier (Baltimore County), George W. Della Jr. (Baltimore) and P.J. Hogan (Montgomery). Buhl was scheduled to meet today with a fourth undecided Senate Democrat, Gloria G. Lawlah (Prince George's).
"We are actively engaged in conversations with senators to correct an historic injustice to a woman who is eminently qualified to serve, and we think we are making progress," Madden said.
Asked about the possibility that Republicans could try to save Buhl's position by maneuvering the nomination into legislative limbo, Madden said: "We are preparing for all eventualities. But the governor is totally committed to Secretary Buhl."
Environmental organizations also turned up the heat, gearing up phone banks and inundating senators with letters and e-mails from constituents. Two lobbyists worked the Senate office building, one distributing thank-you notes to senators who voted against Buhl in committee.
"People are really upset," said Dru Schmidt-Perkins, executive director of 1000 Friends of Maryland. "People thought it was over when her nomination was shot down in committee. To try to overturn this on the Senate floor, calls are coming in from all over."
Interviews with Democrats suggest that the environmentalist campaign is working.
Only five Democrats declared an intention to support Buhl: Thomas M. Middleton (Charles), James E. DeGrange Sr. (Anne Arundel), John C. Astle (Anne Arundel), Edward J. Kasemeyer (Baltimore County) and Norman R. Stone Jr. (Baltimore County). All five said that Buhl is qualified and that environmentalists have failed to make a compelling case for denying Ehrlich the right to assemble his own team.
Besides, Stone said, "if you don't confirm her, who's going to be the alternative? The governor has a right to make his Cabinet appointments."
Only four Democrats identified themselves as undecided. The rest indicated in interviews with reporters and environmental activists that they had decided to vote against Buhl or were leaning that way, suggesting that Ehrlich cannot assemble the Democratic votes he needs.
To make matters more complicated, it was unclear yesterday whether Ehrlich could count on the entire Republican caucus. Sen. Edward J. Pipkin, a freshman from the Eastern Shore, is an environmental activist who won his seat last fall on the strength of campaign promises to clean up the Chesapeake Bay. Environmentalists said Pipkin may be wavering; Pipkin declined yesterday to say how he would vote.
"I think we have the votes," said Sen. Brian E. Frosh (D-Montgomery), who is leading the effort to defeat Buhl. "I can't say that I've talked to everyone, but if I were betting, I'd bet on us."
Comptroller William Donald Schaefer (D), a former governor and an Ehrlich supporter, said it would be bad politics for a new governor to display weakness, and he urged Ehrlich to back down if he isn't absolutely sure he can win. "I hope he won't put it on the floor unless he's got the votes," Schaefer said. "He can't afford two rejections."
Staff writers Jo Becker and Nelson Hernandez contributed to this report.