Senate Democrats thwart Bush’s nominee to head safety agency |

Senate Democrats thwart Bush’s nominee to head safety agency

WASHINGTON (AP) – Solid Democratic opposition sank President Bush’s choice to lead federal product safety efforts Thursday, dealing the administration its first nomination defeat and stirring partisan rancor on Capitol Hill.

The Senate Commerce Committee cast a 12-11 party-line vote not to recommend Mary Sheila Gall for confirmation as chairwoman of the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

It was a setback for Bush that left the White House mulling how it might still elevate Gall or quickly replace the current chairwoman with someone else. Gall will remain on the three-member commission through 2005.

Gall was not present for the debate, as Republicans defended her record and Democrats said she too often favored business over consumer safety. The commission’s lone GOP member, she was originally appointed by Bush’s father in 1991 and was reappointed by President Clinton in 1999.

”My years of public service to this country simply do not merit today’s vote,” Gall said in a statement.

”The president was disappointed in the vote,” Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer said. ”Mary Gall did not lose today, bipartisanship lost today.”

But Commerce Committee Chairman Ernest Hollings said Gall received a fair hearing and was deemed unfit to run the commission.

”I’m convinced President Bush can do better,” the South Carolina Democrat said.

The defeat came on the same day Bush joined Republicans on Capitol Hill to celebrate key legislative victories.

Immediately after Thursday’s vote, a debate ensued on the question of whether it was a fatal blow to Bush’s desire to place Gall at the head of the CPSC.

Committee Republicans led by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a Gall supporter, failed – also on a party-line vote – in their effort to send the nomination to the floor with a negative recommendation.

And Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., said the committee action on Gall appeared to be the final word. ”It is not likely we will go to the floor with this nomination,” he said.

Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., acknowledged it would be almost impossible for Republicans to force a vote by the full Senate.

The president has the power to make appointments during congressional recesses, such as the one set to begin Friday. However, such action inevitably angers lawmakers and, according to aides, was not an option likely to be exercised by Bush.

That left Republicans trying to determine whether they could strip the current chairwoman, Ann Brown, of her post to allow a candidate more to Bush’s liking to take her place. The current vice chairman, Thomas Moore, supported Gall’s bid to head the agency.

A senior administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Bush doesn’t want Brown, an ally of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., to continue serving.

Through commission spokeswoman Marthena Cowart, Brown said she would serve the agency ”for a bit more” – without being specific – and then leave to establish a consumer protection foundation. Brown’s term as a commissioner is not up until 2006.

”Her future is in other people’s hands,” Cowart said.

”We’ll see what happens next,” said Lott, who was among those pressing the White House to push Brown aside. ”It’s not over.”

Fleischer refused to elaborate on the options the White House was considering and others appeared confused as to whether the White House has the authority to remove Brown as chairwoman, a position in which she had been confirmed by the Senate.

”We’ve already checked out the legal aspects of that,” Lott said. ”You can’t remove her as a commissioner, but you can remove her as chairwoman.”

But Cowart said CPSC aides do not know whether that is possible. ”This is uncharted territory for us,” she said.

Republicans charged Democrats with using Gall’s nomination only to score political points and for ignoring the traditional deference shown to a president as he builds his team.

But Democrats said politics had nothing to do with it, that Gall was merely too extreme for them to accept.

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.

The CPSC, created by Congress in 1972, oversees about 15,000 types of products and enforces mandatory rules and product bans. Originally it was a five-member body but in recent years Congress has provided funds only for three members.

In an earlier failed nomination that never reached the Senate, the president’s first choice to head the Labor Department, Linda Chavez, withdrew amid controversy over support she provided to an illegal alien.

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