After a fierce debate, the state Senate rejected Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s choice for environmental secretary yesterday - the first time in Maryland's modern history that the chamber has refused to approve a governor's nominee to head an agency.
The 26-21 vote against Lynn Y. Buhl followed a week of furious backroom negotiations and aggressive lobbying by the governor as he tried to avert a public and embarrassing setback.
The outcome strained relations between Ehrlich and the Senate, and left some senators angry, even as others said it was a natural consequence of a Republican executive and a Democratic-controlled legislature.
Buhl supporters - and a few of her Democratic foes - say she was the victim of a partisan showdown between Ehrlich and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller.
"This wasn't about Lynn Buhl," said Sen. Thomas M. Middleton, a Charles County Democrat who voted against Buhl. "This was about power and a standoff between the governor and president."
Miller declined to say he pressured his caucus to oppose Buhl but lambasted the way Ehrlich handled the nomination. "He has imported right-wing partisans from Capitol Hill. They all want to make war instead of trying to broker an honest settlement," Miller said.
But Ehrlich accused Senate Democrats of being the ones who brought Washington-style politics to Annapolis. "Do I think it's the first hiccup in a partisan road, the Capitol Hill politics we tried not to bring here? Of course," he said.
The dispute follows Miller's unsuccessful efforts over the weekend to orchestrate a deal between Ehrlich and Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat who led the effort to defeat Buhl.
After Ehrlich rejected Frosh's offer - which included keeping Buhl as a temporary Cabinet secretary until next year - Democrats set out to derail the nomination yesterday morning.
Buhl will remain acting secretary until she leaves or another nominee is named, which "is not going to happen in the near future," said Paul E. Schurick, an Ehrlich spokesman.
When Buhl leaves or transfers to another state job, Deputy Secretary Kendl P. Philbrick will probably run the department.
Buhl would not comment after the vote but issued a brief statement thanking her supporters. A department spokesman said she is "going to take a few days off" while she decides what to do next.
Seven Democrats joined the entire Republican caucus in voting to confirm Buhl. But Buhl's nomination suffered a critical blow after three Democrats who supported her March 3 - when the Senate Executive Nomination's Committee voted 10-9 to oppose her - switched their votes yesterday.
Middleton, one of the three senators who turned against Buhl, said he switched his vote at Miller's urging. "There is a war going on, and when the chiefs go to war they call on the braves," the Finance Committee chairman said.
Two Anne Arundel County Democrats - Sens. James E. DeGrange Sr. and Philip C. Jimeno - also switched their votes to oppose Buhl.
On the other side, Sen. Delores G. Kelley, a Baltimore County Democrat, voted against Buhl in committee but supported her yesterday.
Kelley said she was demonstrating her frustration with how Senate leaders handled the fight. "This is just a whole lot of foolishness going on. It is being done to show the strength of the Senate and to leverage other deals," Kelley said.
The Buhl nomination has consumed much of the administration and Senate for the past week as the governor and environmentalists fought over her selection.
Frosh and environmentalists argued that Buhl was not qualified to lead Maryland's agency because she had been a mid-level administrator in the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. That department has been criticized for its lax enforcement of environmental laws and its ties to business.
But the governor has maintained that he has the right to appoint his own people and that Buhl is qualified to lead an agency charged with protecting the state's air and water.
In a two-hour debate yesterday, senators hurled accusations of partisanship back and forth and argued over whether Buhl was the right choice to oversee Maryland's environment.
Buhl and her family sat in the Senate gallery as one Democratic senator after another stood up to punch holes in her resume and her commitment to environmental protection. She began the morning wearing a fixed smile, which seemed to fade as the debate progressed.
"This nomination has gotten off on the wrong foot, and it has limped, staggered and lurched ever since," Frosh said.
Frosh argued that Buhl had failed to adequately prove she would not bring Michigan's environmental policies to Maryland
"It reminds me if you were looking for a baby sitter ... [and] her immediate past employer was the Addams Family," Frosh said.
The senator also scolded Buhl for not stepping in last week when the Ehrlich administration - angry with environmental groups for trying to torpedo her nomination - withdrew its support for a bill to increase fines for water pollution.
Republicans countered Frosh's arguments with a spirited defense of Buhl and their concerns that the Senate was on the cusp of poisoning relations with the governor.
Sen. Nancy Jacobs, a Harford County Republican, began yelling that Democrats were not giving Ehrlich the same courtesy he extended to them last month when he appointed several Democrats to different boards and commissions.
"We are trying to work together and then you pull this?" Jacobs said. "It is a sad day, and it is even going to be sadder for the rest of the term."
The most dramatic moment came when Sen. E.J. Pipkin, an Eastern Shore Republican with close ties to environmental groups, broke a weeklong silence on Buhl. "I have learned for the last week what 'legislator hell' is about," he said. "To see two constituencies you care about and they seemed to be entered in a pact of a mutual self-destruction."
Pipkin ultimately voted for Buhl, but he warned that the divisive struggle could permanently damage relations between Ehrlich and the environmental community.
"My greatest fear is an angry governor will walk away from this discussion ... and in four years' time can cause a lot of damage," Pipkin said. "But I also see an environmental community angry and shut out of the process, and they are going to spend the next four years trying to undermine the governor."
After the vote, the environmental leaders who worked hard all week to defeat Buhl offered differing accounts on what they had just achieved.
"The citizens spoke, the senators listened and the environment won. That's not a bad day," said Dru Schmidt-Perkins, executive director of 1,000 Friends of Maryland.
Theresa Pierno, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, took the opposite approach and offered an olive branch to the administration. "It's time to move beyond this debate and ask to be included in future decisions on the environment," she said.
But Ehrlich officials were furious and aimed plenty of resentment at Miller. "They threatened a number of times to shoot down one of our Cabinet secretaries," said Larry Hogan, the governor's appointments secretary. "This was a party call all along. He needed to show he has some power."
Hogan also suggested the administration might retaliate, especially when it comes to deciding if senators' friends are appointed to state positions.
"I would say the people who have been supporting us will probably get more attention than the people who turned their backs on us," Hogan said.
Miller dismissed Hogan's comments and placed blame on the administration's failure to accept Frosh's deal.
Frosh offered a compromise where Buhl could remain acting secretary until next year as "a test," without requiring confirmation. Frosh would also get to recommend several other appointments to positions of concern to environmentalists. Ehrlich rejected that idea because he thought it was unfair to place Buhl on quasi-probation and give Frosh so much influence.
Senators from both parties say the test for Miller and Ehrlich becomes how they handle future legislative challenges, such as Ehrlich's proposal for slot machines and efforts to balance the state's budget deficit.
"This is split government," Ehrlich said. "Not everything is going to be easy."
Miller said he hoped the administration can get "their sea legs." "If not, you can probably anticipate more votes like we had today," he said.
Sun staff writers David Nitkin and Timothy B Wheeler contributed to this article.
Roll call on Buhl confirmation
Lynn Y. Buhl lost her bid to become Maryland's environmental secretary yesterday as 21 senators voted to confirm her and 26 opposed her nomination. Here's how each senator voted:
John C. Astle, D-Anne Arundel
David R. Brinkley, R-Frederick
Richard F. Colburn, R-Dorchester
Janet Greenip, R-Anne Arundel
John J. Hafer, R-Allegany
Larry E. Haines, R-Carroll
Andrew P. Harris, R-Baltimore County
Patrick J. Hogan, D-Montgomery
J. Robert Hooper, R-Harford
Nancy Jacobs, R-Harford
Edward J. Kasemeyer, D-Howard
Delores G. Kelley, D-Baltimore County
Robert H. Kittleman, R-Howard
Rona E. Kramer, D-Montgomery
Alex X. Mooney, R-Frederick
Donald F. Munson, R-Washington
E.J. Pipkin, R-Queen Anne's
Sandra B. Schrader, R-Howard
J. Lowell Stoltzfus, R-Somerset
Norman R. Stone Jr., D-Baltimore County
Gwendolyn T. Britt, D-Prince George's
James Brochin, D-Baltimore County
Joan Carter Conway, D-Baltimore City
Ulysses Currie, D-Prince George's
James E. DeGrange Sr., D-Anne Arundel
George W. Della Jr., D-Baltimore City
Roy P. Dyson, D-St. Mary's
Nathaniel Exum, D-Prince George's
Jennie M. Forehand, D-Montgomery
Brian E. Frosh, D-Montgomery
Robert J. Garagiola, D-Montgomery
John A. Giannetti Jr., D-Prince George's
Lisa A. Gladden, D-Baltimore City
Leo E. Green, D-Prince George's
Sharon M. Grosfeld, D-Montgomery
Paula C. Hollinger, D-Baltimore County
Ralph M. Hughes, D-Baltimore City
Philip C. Jimeno, D-Anne Arundel
Verna L. Jones, D-Baltimore City
Katherine A. Klausmeier, D-Baltimore County
Nathaniel J. McFadden, D-Baltimore City
Thomas M. Middleton, D-Charles
Thomas V. Mike Miller, D-Prince George's
Paul G. Pinsky, D-Prince George's
Ida G. Ruben, D-Montgomery
Leonard H. Teitelbaum, D-Montgomery