In a sharp change in tactics, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s administration began actively seeking a deal yesterday with environmentalists and Senate Democratic leaders to overcome opposition to Lynn Y. Buhl's confirmation as environmental secretary.
After trying this week to punish environmental leaders for opposing Buhl -- even withdrawing support from a proposal to increase fines for water pollution -- the governor's staff concluded yesterday that the vote on Buhl will be so close that they need to reach a compromise, rather than try to muscle her confirmation through a resistant Senate.
The governor's efforts to install Buhl as head of the Department of the Environment have consumed the administration and much of the Senate, with supporters and opponents going back and forth on head counts.
Yesterday morning, administration officials thought they had secured the required 24 votes. By evening, they were no longer sure, forcing them to look for other ways to avoid a damaging defeat to the governor's young administration.
Environmental leaders said Ehrlich intermediaries approached them yesterday asking for a meeting to negotiate how the governor can ensure Buhl's confirmation.
The vote was scheduled for today, but Ehrlich officials and Senate Democratic leaders said they have agreed to delay it until early next week.
"We are using every available resource and leverage to see this nomination approved," said Paul. E. Schurick, Ehrlich's communications director.
Lawmakers say one option on the table is replacing Buhl's deputy secretary, Kendl P. Philbrick, with a choice environmental activists consider more friendly. Philbrick has been criticized for his close ties to business.
Other options include the governor backing some of the environmental community's top legislative initiatives.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. said negotiations could last through the weekend.
"We will talk to them," said Dru Schmidt-Perkins, executive director of 1,000 Friends of Maryland, one of 10 environmental organizations opposing Buhl. "We are reasonable and willing to discuss alternatives."
The talk of compromise occurs as Ehrlich and Sen. Brian E. Frosh, the Montgomery County Democrat leading the charge against Buhl, are locked in a fierce struggle.
The battle has resulted in a circuslike atmosphere in the Senate office hallways as both sides try to sway members.
Lobbyists for the administration and environmental organizations were lined up in a row yesterday to take turns working on undecided senators.
Last night, it was unclear if Buhl had the 24 votes needed to win confirmation.
Frosh and administration officials say they believe they have the upper hand. Assuming all 14 Republican senators support Ehrlich, the administration needs 10 Democratic votes.
"I think cooler heads are starting to prevail," said Larry Hogan, the governor's appointments secretary.
"We are very comfortable. We are confident we are going to win."
Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele entered the fray on Buhl's behalf , too. "I'm talking to anyone who has a vote and wants to listen," Steele said.
Frosh -- chairman of the Judicial Proceedings Committee -- has also been lobbying members with what several senators call a convincing argument that Buhl is not qualified to oversee Maryland's environmental regulations.
Frosh appears to be particularly effective at swaying the Democratic senators on his committee -- many of whom the administration views as potential swing votes.
"I looked to my committee chairman who feels adamant she is not qualified," said Sen. John A. Giannetti Jr., a Prince George's County Democrat.
"He has provided me more than enough information she is not qualified," he said.
Buhl is a former midlevel official in the Michigan Department of Environment Quality, which has been criticized for its environmental record. Before that, she was an attorney for the Chrysler Corp.
But the administration kept up the pressure yesterday on wavering senators, warning they would punish those who vote against Buhl and reward those who support her. Several lawmakers said Ehrlich officials have told them "they could write their own ticket" if they back Buhl.
Sun staff writer Stephanie Desmon contributed to this article.