Republicans blocked President Barack Obama's pick for the No. 2 job at the Interior Department Wednesday in a dispute over oil and gas leases, but Democrats signaled they would soon make a second attempt to win confirmation.
The 57-39 vote was three short of the 60 needed to advance David Hayes past Republican objections, and made him the first of Obama's top-level nominees to be sidetracked on the Senate floor.
Hayes, an environmental lawyer picked by Obama to serve as deputy secretary of the Interior Department, held the same post during the last three years of the Clinton administration. He also led Obama's natural resources transition team, responsible for naming a new Interior Department chief.
Earlier this year, three of Obama's Cabinet-level nominees withdrew their names from consideration — Health and Human Services nominee Tom Daschle over tax problems, Commerce nominee Bill Richardson because of an investigation into contracts, and fellow Commerce nominee Judd Gregg, a Republican, over policy disagreements with Obama.
Republican opposition to Hayes' nomination was led by Utah Sen. Bob Bennett, who was angered by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar's recent decision to revoke 77 oil and gas leases in Bennett's home state. He was joined by Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, who raised questions about the administration's plans for oil and gas development and objected to recent reversals of several Bush-era rules on endangered species and mountaintop mining.
Senate Democrats, who were joined by Salazar at the Capitol on Wednesday, said the move was an effort to stall the new administration from carrying out its agenda.
Near the top of the list is cleaning up a department that in recent years has been embroiled in scandals that included contract rigging and instances of employees having romantic relationships with workers at oil companies doing business with the government.
"It may be uncomfortable for some to watch us have to clean up mess after mess — from corruption to lawbreaking — that is the previous administration's legacy at Interior, but to cast a vote against such a qualified and fine person is the height of cynicism," Salazar said in a statement following the vote.
If at first you don't succeed...Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said Democrats would make a second attempt to gain 60 votes as soon as next week. Three Democrats, Sens. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland as well as John Kerry and Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, did not vote. Their presence would have left Hayes with 60 votes, the total needed to overcome GOP objections.
"With their votes next week he will be approved," Durbin told reporters.
Robert Dillon, a Murkowski spokesman, said the Alaska lawmaker hoped the disagreements could be worked out, which would presumably clear the way for swift confirmation.
Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., said Republicans had engaged in "classic hostage taking," holding up Hayes in a dispute over a "tangential issue."
Hayes won the support of all Democrats who voted except for Reid, who switched to opposition at the last moment as part of a procedural move that enabled him to call for a later revote. Independent Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut as well as Republican Sens. Olympia Snowe of Maine and Jon Kyl of Arizona also backed confirmation.
Seventeen other Obama nominees are still waiting for final Senate approval.