WASHINGTON — In a new challenge to the White House, Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., on Friday promised a "fight to the death" against plans for oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico and said he would hold up a Senate vote on the nominee for a top Interior Department official to protest the plan.
The move by Nelson goes beyond a House vote last week, in which 70 Republicans joined Democrats in blocking until at least next April any drilling in a disputed area about 100 miles off Florida. Apart from Gale Norton, the interior secretary, none of President Bush's nominees to top Interior posts have been confirmed, and Nelson's action is bound to disrupt that process further.
The nominee singled out by Nelson is J. Steven Griles, Bush's choice as deputy interior secretary, the department's No. 2 post. Griles, a one-time protege of James Watt, an interior secretary in the Reagan administration, is an oil and gas lobbyist who in his confirmation hearings defended plans for drilling in the gulf.
The plan has been opposed in Florida by both Democrats and Republicans, including Gov. Jeb Bush, the president's brother. Still, Nelson's threat is certain to infuriate Senate Republicans, including Sen. Frank Murkowski of Alaska, Griles' chief champion, who has accused Democrats of "playing hostage" with the nomination and who must now address a real roadblock.
A spokeswoman for Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D., the majority leader, who would decide whether to submit Griles' nomination for a vote, said Friday afternoon that Nelson's concerns would be taken "very seriously." Such pleas are usually honored as a matter of senatorial courtesy.
The Daschle spokeswoman, Anita Dunn, said, "I would not expect to see any swift movement on this nomination."
The oil and gas industry has strongly supported the drilling plan, and though the administration has said it has not made a final decision, it has signaled that it wants to go forward with the lease sale. Norton has turned aside appeals from Gov. Bush to drop the proposal.
Nelson had spelled out his position in a June 15 letter to Daschle, saying he would object "until further notice" to a parliamentary procedure that would bring the nomination to the Senate floor.
That procedure relies on the unanimous consent of senators; Nelson's objection to sending the nomination to the Senate floor would force a debate that senators on both sides of the issue generally prefer to avoid.
"I'm going to use every tool available to me to try to prevent drilling off the state of Florida," Nelson said in an interview Friday.
In a telephone interview, a senior Interior Department official, Spofford Canfield, said: "The secretary recognizes absolutely that both senators from Florida and indeed the entire Florida delegation has a perspective on this issue, and we look forward to resolving these concerns. And we certainly look forward to being able to have the people that the president has nominated to positions of responsibility take office should the Senate confirm them."
Griles is not the only drilling supporter among the nominees for top Interior posts, but Nelson said that for now he would focus on that nomination. Among others who have been criticized by environmentalists are William G. Myers III, a cattlemen's lobbyist nominated as solicitor, and Bennett Raley, the prospective assistant secretary for water, who told a congressional committee in 1999 that he favored repeal of the Endangered Species Act.
Only four Democrats out of 11 on the Senate Energy Committee opposed Griles' nomination in a vote in May that sent the decision to the Senate floor. But even before Nelson requested that it be put on hold, Democrats have several times declined Republican requests to schedule a vote on the nomination.