Washington » Backed by his fellow Senate Republicans, Sen. Bob Bennett successfully blocked a top Interior Department nominee Wednesday over what he says was a political move to block oil and gas exploration in Utah.
The defeat marked President Barack Obama's first political appointee to be shot down by the Senate.
But Bennett's victory, and his leverage over the Interior in holding up David Hayes to be deputy secretary, may be short-lived as Democrats gear up to roll through Bennett's roadblock in another vote next week.
"The vote we had this morning makes it clear that David Hayes will be approved," Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., told reporters after the nominee came up three votes shy of the 60 threshold needed to move forward on Hayes confirmation. "We will continue to offer this nomination to the Senate until he is approved."
Three Democratic senators were absent from the vote as well.
Bennett, meanwhile, vowed to fight the confirmation vote until Interior officials answer his questions about why Secretary Ken Salazar shelved 77 leases for oil and gas exploration in Utah.
Prompted by a lawsuit from an environmental group, U.S. District Judge Ricardo Urbina indefinitely halted action on the leases before Salazar took his action -- a point Bennett didn't mention Wednesday. Urbina ruled the Bureau of Land Management failed to conduct proper environmental assessments.
Salazar pledged to Bennett that if confirmed, Hayes would be on the ground in Utah within 10 days and deliver a review of the lease sale by the end of the month -- promises that Bennett dismissed.
"All of that has been promised to me in writing before," Bennett said. "The question arises, you've promised before and I haven't got it. If I take away my leverage, then I don't have any recourse."
Salazar issued a scathing statement after the vote.
"This was a tired vote of bitter obstructionism," the secretary 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."
An hour later, Salazar was more upbeat, saying he is "deeply resolved" now to get Hayes into place.
A senior Democratic Senate aide who spoke on condition of anonymity said Salazar was angered by Bennett's actions and "he has done everything he can and that he is done talking to Bennett."
While Democrats were short three votes in the final total, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid switched his vote against moving forward so he could bring the issue back up next week.
"David Hayes is going to be confirmed," Reid, D-Nev., vowed on the Senate floor.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, a Utah Republican who voted against moving on with Hayes' confirmation, said Interior isn't being accountable.
"The withdrawal [of the leases] was a terrible signal to our domestic energy producers, and the subsequent attempt to cover up the motives behind the move was a bad day for those who care about transparency in their government's decision-making," Hatch said.
But environmental groups quickly argued that Republicans were continuing their "Party of 'No'" label by fighting a well-qualified nominee. Hayes, an environmental lawyer, previously served as deputy secretary under President Bill Clinton.
"Lacking any legitimate objections, the Senate Republicans are resorting to petty tactics to block a highly qualified nominee," said Jim Lyon, National Wildlife Federation's vice president for conservation policy. "For the good of the country, they need to get over it, so Secretary Salazar can put his team in place and focus on important matters."