The Senate narrowly defeated a cloture vote this morning that would have lifted a Republican "hold" on the nominee for Interior deputy secretary, David Hayes.
The 57-39 vote fell three votes short of the 60 needed to move to final debate on Hayes, who would be Interior Secretary Ken Salazar's second in command.
Two Republicans -- Sens. Jon Kyl of Arizona and Olympia Snowe of Maine -- voted for cloture. The lone Democratic vote against cloture was cast by Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada -- a procedural move allowing him to quickly file a motion to reconsider.
Prior to the vote, Reid pledged he would continue to file motions to move the nomination forward. "David Hayes will be confirmed," Reid vowed. "If I have to wait, I will, but David Hayes will be confirmed," Reid said.
Republicans rallied behind Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah), who has been blocking Hayes for two months over concerns about a planned oil-and-gas lease sale in Utah that the Obama administration has put on hold.
Bennett said on the Senate floor today that while he believes Hayes is qualified for the post, he wants Interior to complete a review and justify its decision to withdraw the leases before he drops his objection.
"I want to do everything I can to get Hayes confirmed as rapidly as possible," Bennett said. "But as rapidly as possible does not mean I should give up my legitimate right to clear answers."
Two weeks ago, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee's ranking member, Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), joined Bennett in the hold. Both asked senators yesterday at the weekly Republican luncheon to defeat the cloture vote.
Murkowski wrote Salazar last week outlining her reasons for blocking Hayes' nomination and requesting answers to six pages of detailed questions on key energy and natural resource policies (E&E Daily, May 8).
Salazar said in a statement following the vote today that he and the department have tried to answer Republicans' questions, but that the American people are demanding changes at Interior.
"This was a tired vote of bitter obstructionism," Salazar said. "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."
Speaking at a House Appropriations Committee hearing today on the Interior's 2010 budget proposal, Salazar said the decision to cancel the Utah leases was "absolutely correct."
"I stand by it, and I have no regrets," he said. "Frankly, you see the political song and dance that goes on when you make these tough decisions."
Letters to senators
Interior sent letters to Bennett and Murkowski yesterday aimed at answering their questions.
In the letter to Bennett, Salazar pledged that, upon Hayes' confirmation, he would direct the newly minted deputy secretary to address the senator's concerns about the Utah lease sale -- including having Hayes visit Utah within 10 days and reviewing the administrative record on the sale.
Salazar's letter to Murkowski aimed to address concerns about actions he has taken since becoming Interior secretary, including reversing changes made by the Bush administration to the Endangered Species Act's consultation rule and to the stream buffer zone rule for mountaintop mining.
"I look forward to working with you in addressing our challenging responsibilities as steward of our nation's natural resources," Salazar wrote, adding that not having Hayes confirmed was "hampering my ability to serve the President, and to work with you and your Committee."
But while Murkowski said she was happy to receive the letter, she described it as a "draft" that failed to answer many of her questions. "It's clear in the short term these questions are being answered because of the cloture motion, and that's troublesome," she said.
Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) accused Republicans of obstructionism, noting that during this same time at the beginning of the Reagan administration the Democratic-controlled Senate had cleared 125 of the president's nominees while the current Senate has cleared 104.
Durbin said at a press conference following the vote that Democrats are encouraged by the close margin and will bring Hayes up for another vote as soon as next week, adding that Salazar has worked hard to address Republicans' concerns about Hayes, including personally calling individual senators.
"I think they have had more than their day in court with David Hayes," he said.
Click here to view the Bennett letter.
Click here to view the Murkowski letter.
Reporter Noelle Straub contributed.