WASHINGTON – The Senate Commerce Committee on Thursday voted against President Bush's choice to head the Consumer Product Safety Commission, dealing the new administration its first nomination setback.
The vote was a potentially fatal blow for Mary Sheila Gall, who had been assailed by Democrats as too pro-business in her votes as a member of the commission. She was defeated in a party-line vote of 12-11.
"My years of public service to this country simply do not merit today's vote," Gall, the only Republican on the three-member commission, said in a statement. "My whole life, both personal and professional, has been dedicated to children and families. I will continue to make the safety and well-being of America's children and families my highest priority."
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a Gall supporter, made a motion that her nomination be sent to the Senate floor, even with a negative recommendation, and that was defeated by the same party-line vote.
Pia Pialorsi, a spokeswoman for Republicans on the committee, said she knew of no other efforts under way to force a full Senate vote.
"Mary Gall did not lose today, bipartisanship lost today," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said, insisting she is "fair and dedicated."
"Many of the same senators who voted for Mary Gall when she was nominated by President Clinton just two years ago, voted against her today, demonstrating the purely partisan nature of this vote," he said.
Democrats on the panel disputed that view. "They can call it whatever they want," said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif. "Call me old-fashioned, but I thought the chairman of the CPSC should be fighting for consumers."
A senior administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Bush doesn't want the current chairwoman, Ann Brown, an ally of Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., to continue serving. Republicans were determining whether they could strip Brown of her chairmanship and elevate a candidate favored by Bush to the post, said GOP sources who spoke on grounds of anonymity.
"It's not over," said Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., who was among those pressing the White House to push Brown aside.
Adminstration spokeswoman Anne Womack said the White House was "taking a look at different options" on how to proceed. She declined to elaborate.
The president has the power to make appointments during congressional recesses but ther action inevitably angers lawmakers and, according to aides, was not an option likely to be exercised by Bush.
The vote represented a setback for Bush on the same day that the president traveled to Capitol Hill with Vice President Dick Cheney and joined Republicans there to celebrate key victories on patients' rights and energy legislation.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., told reporters: "It is not likely we will go to the floor with this nomination. .... The committee has spoken ......... I don't have any expectation that it needs to go further than that."
Gall's nomination was the first outright rejection of a Bush nominee. His first choice to head the Labor Department, Linda Chavez, withdrew amid controversy over support she provided to an illegal alien. Attorney General John Ashcroft survived a nasty confirmation battle.
XXX Led by Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, Democrats charged that Gall, the only Republican on the three-member commission, developed a record of favoring businesses over consumers. Critics, including consumer groups, particularly zeroed in on Gall votes against new regulations for a variety of products considered potentially dangerous to children, including baby walkers and children's bunk beds.
Gall, in her confirmation hearing last week, defended her record since first named to the agency by Bush's father in 1991. She said she based each of her decisions on the facts and the law.
Her supporters characterized the opposition as based more in politics than substance, largely because her renomination to the commission -- by former President Clinton -- went unopposed in 1999. She also had the support of a Democratic commission member.
In advance of Thursday's committee meeting, the head of the American Conservative Union sent a letter to every member of the Senate asking that Gall be judged on her qualifications.
"Depriving the president of his preferred nominee, particularly one with Commissioner Gall's talent, experience, commitment and distinction -- simply to play political games -- is disgraceful," David Keene wrote.
The CPSC, created by Congress in 1972, oversees about 15,000 types of products, ranging from infant high chairs to fire sprinklers. While it works with companies to recall dangerous products and develop voluntary safety standards, the commission also issues and enforces mandatory rules and product bans.