If Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., takes over the gavel of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee next Congress, she is in a prime spot to lead on an issue that’s critically important to her state—energy—and finally get past the finish line her signature policy issue: energy revenue-sharing for coastal states. But even if Landrieu wins reelection (and that’s a big if), several other dynamics would influence how much she is able to lead on that committee.
Right now, Landrieu is the third-most-senior Democrat on the panel, after Tim Johnson of South Dakota, who has already announced he is retiring, and current Chairman Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who is also the second-most-senior Democrat on the powerful—and coveted—Senate Finance Committee. With the retirement announcement of Finance Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., last week, and the conventional wisdom suggesting Wyden wouldn’t say no to the Finance gavel, Landrieu is poised to be the top Democrat on the committee. If Democrats keep control of the Senate, she would chair what’s arguably the most powerful committee for the state she has represented since 1996.
When it comes to energy issues, Landrieu is one of the most conservative Democrats in the Senate. She, along with Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., vote more reliably with Republicans on most energy and environmental issues than with the Democratic Party led by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. This dynamic has led to rumors that Reid could seek to maneuver around Landrieu to ensure that a more moderate Democrat—such as fourth-in-line Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington state--gets the Energy gavel in 2015 instead. Several people close to Landrieu who are familiar with the Democratic seniority system in picking chairs dismissed this possibility.
“At a time when the party is trying to establish strong beachheads in the South, as well as places like the Mountain West, that would seem to be headed in the wrong direction,” said Paul Bledsoe, president of consulting firm Bledsoe & Associates, who worked on energy and climate issues for then-President Clinton and for Democratic members in Congress.
“At least to date, Democrats have never violated the seniority rule,” said McKie Campbell, who retired recently from the Senate after serving as staff director for Energy and Natural Resources Committee ranking member Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, for the past several years. “I think it would be one heck of a fight were he to do that.”
In fact, precedent indicates that Reid doesn’t interfere when members with differing political perspectives rise in the ranks to chair key committees, such as Baucus at Finance and now-retired Sen. Joe Lieberman, ID-Conn., at Homeland Security. But that doesn’t mean Reid wouldn’t influence the committee’s business in more implicit ways.
“The bigger question would be how it would affect the ability of bills the Energy Committee passes out to go to the floor,” McKie said. He noted that Reid bypassed the Finance Committee to bring to the floor legislation that would empower states to collect taxes from online sales. Baucus opposes the legislation. Would Reid ensure that bills Landrieu pushes in the Energy Committee don’t make it to the floor if he and other more liberal members of the Democratic caucus oppose the legislation? It’s a question Senate staffers and those close to Landrieu are asking.
Reid's office did not respond to a request for comment.
Wyden has expressed an interest in pursuing Landrieu’s revenue-sharing legislation this Congress, but he hasn’t officially signed on as a cosponsor yet, and it’s unlikely the measure will become law before Election Day 2014. If that’s the case, Landrieu could face another hurdle: Her partner-in-crime on this issue, fellow coastal-state Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaskka, the ranking Republican on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, will no longer be able to serve as ranking member next Congress because of the GOP’s term limits. Murkowski is in the last third of her six-year term as ranking member. She still has the full six years to serve as chairwoman.
That means if Democrats keep the Senate, Landrieu will likely have Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., as her ranking member. Barrasso is a big supporter of fossil fuels (his state produces 40 percent of all coal mined in the U.S.). But as a senator from a landlocked state that already benefits from a piece of the energy-royalty pie, Barrasso doesn’t view Landrieu’s revenue-sharing quest with the same urgency as Landrieu and Murkowski do. According to a spokeswoman, Barrasso hasn’t taken a position on the Landrieu-Murkowski revenue-sharing legislation. (Ironically, a graphic on Landrieu’s website uses Wyoming to compare what interior states get in energy royalties compared with coastal states.)
Although not the desired outcome for the Democratic Party, Landrieu would probably have the best chance at passing her revenue-sharing legislation next Congress if Republicans take control of the Senate in 2014, which would set up Murkowski as chair and she as the ranking member.
The pair’s good working relationship and both of their reputations for working with members of the opposite party could bode well for broader energy legislation.
“That kind of demonstrated success and building the 60 votes of support necessary to get things over the finish line, that is a match that would be very hard to beat in terms of making meaningful change,” said Tom Michels, who worked on energy issues for Landrieu from 2006 to 2010. “I think there is huge potential there.”
But until Election Day 2014, Landrieu will be trying hard to get work done in the committee under Chairman Wyden—and to make sure voters back in Louisiana know about it.