WASHINGTON - Senate Democrats vowed Wednesday to push through a White House nominee for a top Interior Department post even as they accused Republicans - led by Sens. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Robert Bennett of Utah - of obstructing President Barack Obama's agenda by continuing to object to the candidate.
Wednesday's procedural vote on whether the Senate should move ahead with an official confirmation vote failed 57-39. All but two Republicans voted against the nominee, David Hayes, the first Obama administration appointee whom the Senate has failed to confirm.
Democrats said Wednesday that they would get Hayes confirmed, and that they now knew they had the numbers to do it.
Murkowski and Bennett had placed a hold on Hayes, objecting to the Obama administration's overall approach to Interior Department policies, especially the decision by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to withdraw oil and gas leases offered on 77 parcels of public land near Utah's Arches and Canyonlands national parks.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., forced the vote on Hayes, hoping to move the nomination forward, but he fell three votes short of the tally needed to break the Bennett- and Murkowski-led filibuster. Reid complained that Republicans were holding up efforts by Salazar to engage in serious restructuring after a series of Bush-era scandals within the Interior Department.
"Ask anyone who knows him, and they will tell you that among the many skills David Hayes brings to the table is his ability to work cooperatively and in a bipartisan fashion on the most complex issues," Reid said. "I wish our Republican colleagues would show the same spirit on at least the simple ones, like confirming such a clearly qualified candidate for such a critical job."
The two Republican senators who voted for Hayes are Olympia Snowe of Maine, who's often a swing vote on party-line issues, and Jon Kyl of Arizona, who knew Hayes when they worked to solve water rights issues in the Southwest. Reid also voted against moving the nomination forward, a procedural move that allows him to bring up the vote again for reconsideration.
Three Democratic senators who would have voted for Hayes weren't present: Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, who's ill, John Kerry of Massachusetts and Barbara Mikulski of Maryland. Kerry was at a funeral in Massachusetts; a spokeswoman for Mikulski said she was absent to "work on health care issues."
Murkowski said her objections to Hayes were about ensuring that Republicans who had questions about the Obama administration's direction on energy policy would get answers. Hayes held the same post in the Clinton administration and served on Obama's transition team.
Salazar acknowledged Wednesday that the Republican-led effort to block Hayes was tied directly to the decision to withdraw the Utah leases, but he offered no apology for the move.
"The decision we made on the Utah sale was correct. I have no regrets," he said during a House Interior Appropriations subcommittee meeting, even as an aide handed him a note alerting him of the outcome of the Hayes vote.
Hayes is up for the job as the No. 2 Interior Department official. The deputy serves as the chief operating officer of a federal department that has 67,000 employees and an annual budget of $16 billion. It's of particular concern in the West - in Alaska in particular - where it has wide oversight of 155 million acres of federal lands under the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Fish and Wildlife Service.
Salazar sent a last-minute letter to Murkowski and Bennett on Wednesday in an effort to persuade them, along with other Republicans, to change their votes. In his letter, Salazar told Murkowski he's committed to a "balanced agenda" at the Interior Department that promotes the "responsible extraction of valuable energy supplies from our public resources, but that protects the public interest, that is based on sound science and that complies fully with the law."
The hold is purely politics, said Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., the majority whip.
"This isn't about the nominee, this is about slowing down the assembling of President Obama's team to bring real change to Washington," Durbin said.