Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. pulled out all the stops yesterday to get Lynn Y. Buhl confirmed as Maryland's environmental secretary in what fast is becoming the biggest test of the young administration.
Hoping to avoid an embarrassing defeat, the governor and his staff have been making the rounds in a desperate attempt to get the 24 votes of support by the time the Senate takes up the confirmation, possibly as soon as tomorrow.
Yesterday, the governor's staff upped the ante by suggesting that a former businessman feared by environmentalists -- Kendl P. Philbrick, the agency's deputy secretary -- would serve as the head of the agency if Buhl is rejected.
"If the secretary doesn't get confirmed, the current deputy will be the acting secretary. That is a fact," said Larry Hogan, the governor's appointments secretary, who added Philbrick could serve in that role for eight years.
Administration officials said the governor could hold up or veto the pet projects of senators who vote against Buhl, while rewarding those who support her.
By last night, the administration felt momentum had shifted to their side, as officials started hearing that some Senate Democrats were increasingly hesitant to use a personnel appointment as the tool to hand the governor his first major defeat.
The volley of activity yesterday occurred as one of Ehrlich's strongest Democratic allies urged the governor to "play hardball" with the Senate or risk permanent damage to his political armor.
"He should not let the legislature take charge," said Comptroller William Donald Schaefer. "He has to say to them, 'Look boys, this ain't the way we play the game.'"
On Monday, the Senate Executive Nominations Committee voted 10-9 to reject Buhl -- the first such recommendation since Maryland's modern government was formed three decades ago.
The governor is now trying to persuade the Senate to buck the committee's recommendation and confirm Buhl.
Environmentalists and some influential Democratic senators, including Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., oppose Buhl because they do not think she is qualified or knowledgeable enough on environmental issues.
Buhl is a former midlevel official in the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, an agency criticized for its perceived lax enforcement of regulations. Before that, she was an attorney with the Chrysler Corp.
But the administration's pledge that Philbrick would oversee the agency if Buhl is rejected sent shock waves through the state's environmental community. Philbrick, they fear, is too close to big business.
"If anything, this debate shows Marylanders care deeply about the environment, and that approach is clearly out of sync with Maryland citizens," said Susan Brown, executive director of the Maryland League of Conservation Voters.
Since he is already acting secretary, Philbrick could lead the department until Ehrlich names a replacement. His position as deputy secretary does not require Senate confirmation.
Philbrick is a former vice president at Lockheed Martin Corp./LMC Properties Inc. He also is the former director of real estate at Colgate Palmolive Co. and American Can Co.
His resume also lists previous positions at Pepsico, Xerox Corp. and Mobil Oil Corp.
"The implications they are saying is, if you don't like this person, we'll give you someone even worse," said Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a Montgomery County senator leading the effort to defeat Buhl. "That is not a grownup response."
Frosh said yesterday that the administration does not yet have the votes in the Senate to get Buhl confirmed and urged the governor to find another nominee.
Schaefer, who supports Buhl's confirmation, is also urging the governor to withdraw Buhl's name from consideration unless administration officials are confident they have the votes to get her confirmed.
"It is a double rejection. ... He can't afford to have many of those rejections," Schaefer said. "He has to be very careful."
Political observers say a Buhl defeat could be interpreted as a significant display of weakness by an administration that has yet to find its footing in Annapolis.
House Speaker Michael E. Busch, an Anne Arundel Democrat leading the effort to defeat the governor's slots proposal, said the surprise fight over Buhl is distracting the administration from other legislative battles.
"Anytime you have a major issue and you have to expend energy elsewhere, it certainly takes away from some of your other priorities," Busch said.
But the administration is working overtime to secure the votes needed in the Senate to get Buhl confirmed. With 14 Republicans in the Senate, the governor needs to persuade 10 Democrats to support her.
Although Miller voted against Buhl on Monday, he said this week that he is not forcing his caucus to oppose her nomination -- giving Ehrlich more opportunity to sway senators. Several senators said yesterday that they are undecided, including Baltimore Democrats Ralph M. Hughes, George W. Della Jr. and Lisa A. Gladden.
Hogan said Buhl is trying to meet with every senator before the vote, and administration officials said Ehrlich is also personally meeting with lawmakers to win their support and asked former Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman to make calls on Buhl's behalf.
"We are willing to go to any length to see her approved," one senior administration official said. "It's vetoes. It's pork. It's school construction. It's prestige. It's jobs. It's appointments. It's everything."