Buhl rallies after setback in bid to lead Md. agency

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s embattled nominee to head the Department of the Environment vowed yesterday to take her case to the full Senate - and the public - as administration officials accused legislative leaders of bringing partisanship to new lows.

Lynn Y. Buhl, whose nomination was rejected Monday by the Senate Executive Nominations Committee, has launched a blitz of media interviews to gather support for her bid to lead the agency charged with enforcing the state's environmental laws.

"We're going to keep pushing on this because I'm qualified for this job," Buhl said. Buhl's effort came as administration officials tried to rebound from Monday's setback and gather the 24 votes needed to win Senate confirmation when it goes to the floor Friday. The Senate committee voted 10-9 against her.

Yesterday, Larry Hogan, the governor's appointments secretary, accused Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. of trying to torpedo Buhl's nomination in order to send a message to the new Republican administration.

Hogan said Miller told him weeks ago the Democratic-controlled Senate would have to defeat at least one of the governor's nominations on principle.

And Buhl, Hogan said, appears to be that target. "This is about politics and trying to make the governor look bad," Hogan said. "Part of this is the luck of the draw. She was the 18th out of 18 nominees."

Buhl, an attorney who has said she would like to see the Department of the Environment become more receptive to the business community, also said she feels like a pawn in a dispute between Senate Democrats and Ehrlich.

"A number of the remarks made suggest it is larger than me. There are issues with the administration that go beyond Lynn Buhl," she said yesterday.

Miller, who is Ehrlich's biggest ally so far in the fight over legalizing slot machines, reacted angrily to Hogan's claims, saying he remembers making no such threats.

"If I wanted to defeat [Buhl] there would have [been a] unanimous vote from that committee," Miller said. "I explained my position to the governor and it has nothing to do with partisanship. ... I think they made a mistake. They nominated someone from an anti-environmental state like Michigan."

Buhl is a former midlevel administrator in the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, which has been widely criticized for its environmental record. Before that, she was an attorney at Chrysler Corp.

But Miller sought yesterday to prevent Buhl's nomination from causing a rift between him and the administration.

"There are some people on my side of the aisle and his side of the aisle that want this to denigrate into partisanship," said Miller. "I am committed to making sure that doesn't happen."

Meanwhile, the governor's relationship with environmental organizations trying to defeat Buhl showed signs of deterioration.

Environmental groups thought they had Ehrlich's support for a proposal to increase civil and criminal fines for water pollution, but yesterday - hours after the Senate committee voted to reject Buhl - the administration decided not to testify at a hearing on the bill.

And the Republican senators on the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee appeared to take out their frustrations about Buhl on the environmentalists who testified in support of the bill.

"There seems to be some added questioning, which is unfortunate," said Sue Brown, executive director of the Maryland League of Conservation Voters.

Theresa Pierno, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said she hoped that "everybody steps back and lowers the tone and rhetoric."

The Ehrlich administration, however, launched a feverish effort to save face and have Buhl confirmed.

The Senate committee's decision to reject Buhl marked the first time since Maryland's modern government was formed that the panel voted against a governor's choice to head an agency.

The administration and its Republican allies in the Senate now find themselves in uncharted territory as they prepare to persuade the rest of the Senate to buck the committee's recommendation.

Sharesee Deleaver, an Ehrlich spokeswoman, said the governor is launching a "multi-tiered strategy" that will include personal visits with lawmakers. The meetings started yesterday.

With 14 Republicans in the 47-member Senate, the administration needs 10 additional votes, including the five Democrats on the executive nomination's committee who voted for Buhl on Monday.

"With the powers of the governor's office, I would be surprised if he didn't get it," said Senate Majority Leader Nathaniel J. McFadden, a Baltimore Democrat.

Sen. George W. Della Jr., a Baltimore Democrat, was one of the lawmakers the administration was targeting yesterday. Several administration officials and Senate Minority Leader J. Lowell Stoltfuz had Della cornered yesterday afternoon in the Senate Office Building. Della was overheard saying he wanted to meet with Buhl.

Ehrlich had gone into Monday's confirmation hearing comfortable that Buhl had the votes to win approval.

McFadden and Sen. Ulysses Currie, a Prince George's County Democrat, shocked the administration and other senators by voting against Buhl.

Senators said Buhl's lackluster performance during questioning at her confirmation hearing caused the panel to reject her.

"The lady simply didn't make the case," Miller said. "She performed very weakly and didn't understand the state's environmental issues."

Ehrlich adviser Martin G. Madden, a former state senator, maintains Buhl is being held to a standard that "no other Cabinet nominees have been held to" and Miller and other Democrats have yet to fully explain their opposition.

"Everyone says she is qualified. Everyone says she is very nice, but they have this 'but' and no one can answer what is the 'but,'" Madden said.

Madden was distributing newspaper articles from the 1980s that reported how senators - including Miller - had concerns about nominees from past administrations, but voted to confirm them anyway.

But McFadden said he draws the line at Buhl.

"We didn't go knocking on the door looking for a fight with the governor," McFadden said. "I believe and still believe the governor has the right to choose his own people and rise and fall accordingly. But I don't think Maryland's environment can take that chance with Buhl."

Sun staff writer Stephanie Desmon contributed to this article.

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