Ehrlich makes a final effort to gain Buhl's confirmation

Deal attempted with critic of environmental nominee

March 08, 2003|By Tim Craig and David Nitkin | Tim Craig and David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. made a final push to get Lynn Y. Buhl confirmed as environmental secretary yesterday by offering to haggle with her leading critic in the Senate.

In a rare glimpse at how government works, Ehrlich said he is trying to cut a deal with Sen. Brian E. Frosh so the Montgomery County Democrat will drop his opposition to Buhl's confirmation as secretary of the Department of the Environment.

Ehrlich told Frosh -- who worked diligently all week to line up the votes to defeat Buhl -- he will consider just about any offer in exchange for guarantees Buhl will be confirmed when the Senate votes Tuesday.

"I want my nominee," Ehrlich said in his first comments since the Senate Executive Nominations Committee voted 10-9 Monday to reject Buhl. "This is important to me."

"If there is anything you want, fine," Ehrlich said he told Frosh during the 10-minute meeting.

The senator responded by saying he would think about it over the weekend, but warned he might oppose Buhl anyway.

"We had a very friendly, cordial conversation but we didn't resolve anything," Frosh said. "We did agree there may be some way of finding middle ground, but neither of us have found it yet."

Any deal Frosh makes with Ehrlich would most likely be for concessions on the governor's stand on environmental issues or projects, Frosh says.

"I'm not trying to make a deal on some other subject," Frosh said. "I'm not trying to get a project for my district. I'm not trying to get a building named in my honor. I'm trying to set environmental protection."

Ehrlich offered to replace Buhl's deputy secretary, Kendl P. Philbrick, with someone more palatable to environmental activists.

Philbrick has been criticized for his close ties to business.

But Frosh says his problem is with Buhl, a former midlevel administrator at the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, which has been criticized for its record on enforcement.

Even if Frosh agrees to a deal, there is no assurance the governor has the 24 votes needed to confirm his nominee and spare the Republican administration from a painful defeat.

That could require additional deals with additional senators.

"It's not a good outcome for me to lose, but I'm willing to," Ehrlich said.

GOP leaders have enlisted the help of Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, an Eastern Shore Republican known for his pro-environment stances.

The congressman is expected to lobby senators and use his to ties to the environmental community to see if they will change their opposition to Buhl.

Buhl has also been spending her days walking the halls of the State House looking to talk to any senator who will listen.

"They need to hear from me directly," Buhl said. "I'm a fighter, and I am being mischaracterized."

Ehrlich and Frosh exchanged home numbers so they could continue discussions over the weekend.

The governor has been locked in a fierce struggle all week with some Democrats and environmentalists trying to torpedo the nomination.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller set up the meeting between Ehrlich and Frosh to defuse escalating tensions.

Miller, who opposes Buhl's nomination, fears a nasty floor fight Tuesday could paralyze the Senate's relationship with the administration.

"Right now we are at a stalemate, and I don't want this to digress," Miller said. "I think there will be some form of compromise or it is going to be a very long, difficult day on Tuesday."

Senate Republicans and the administration unsuccessfully tried to force a vote yesterday because they thought they were close to having the needed votes.

Senate minority leader J. Lowell Stoltzfus, an Eastern Shore Republican, said eight Democrats are still undecided.

But senators are increasingly facing pressure from their constituents.

Sen. Joan Carter Conway, a Baltimore Democrat, said she would probably oppose Buhl because she received "about a thousand" e-mails, most opposing the nominee.

Miller said yesterday that he is not asking the Democratic caucus to vote for or against her, which is encouraging to Ehrlich.

"If Mike would just say it's not a party call, we have a 50-50 chance," Ehrlich said.

But Frosh thinks there are enough votes to defeat Buhl. Still, he plans to spend his weekend thinking up possible offers for the governor.

"I'm intrigued," Frosh said. "I can have anything? How about the governor's [sky]box at Camden Yards?"

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