Senate Energy Committee Transformed?

Washington, D.C., January 3, 2014 – Senate Energy Committee Chairman Mary Landrieu? That’s likely in the second session of the 113th Congress, with the Louisiana Democrat moving up to take over a committee vitally important to U.S. energy interests (and to her home state of Louisiana, which is an important component of this story).

Sen. Mary Landrieu

Sen. Mary Landrieu

It starts with Sen. Max Baucus, the Montana Democrat who chairs the powerful Senate Finance Committee and earlier announced he would not run for reelection this year. In a surprise move, the Obama administration late last year said it would name Baucus as the new U.S. Ambassador to China, creating an opening on the money committee.

The second most senior Democrat on the Finance Committee — and seniority still counts in the Senate — West Virginia’s Jay Rockefeller, made it know he wasn’t interested in replacing Baucus. Rockefeller already heads the Commerce and Transportation Committee and is stepping out of the Senate at the end of the year. Next in line? Oregon’s Ron Wyden, head of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, who has made it clear he’s interested in replacing Baucus at the Finance Committee.

That would leave an opening at the energy panel. Next in line? South Dakota’s Tim Johnson. But he’s already Banking Committee chairman and is also not running for reelection this year. Johnson isn’t moving to the energy panel.

Hello, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, the next in the Democratic queue. She’s a natural – a moderate oil-and-gas state Democrat who is also running for another term this fall and needs to cement her relationships with her home-state interests. Scion of a Pelican State Democratic family – her father Moon was a New Orleans mayor and her brother Mitch is currently New Orleans mayor – she’s been a loyal Democrat on most issues (including voting for President Obama’s health care plan after much tugging-and-pulling from various interests), but has broken with the administration on most energy issues that separate her state from the ruling party consensus.

Landrieu faces an uphill reelection battle. Obama lost Louisiana by 18% in 2012 and his energy policies, including the Environmental Protection Agency’s plans on air emissions, are widely unpopular. She trails in early polling, dragged down by her partisan identification.

The Senate Energy Committee would be an ideal place for Landrieu to demonstrate her value to the home folks over the next year. The way Louisiana’s unique election laws work, there will be a non-partisan, multi-candidate primary in November. If any candidate, regardless of party, wins over 50%, the election is over. More likely, if the Democrat and the Republican fail to win a majority, there will be a runoff of the top two vote-getters a month later.

If Landrieu becomes the energy committee head, it will set up an interesting lineup, with women occupying both the chairmanship and the ranking minority member. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska is the senior Republican on the committee. In a strange irony, during the early 1990s, Louisiana Democrat J. Bennett Johnston was chairman of the committee, while Alaska Republican Frank Murkowski, Lisa’s father, was the ranking Republican. He succeeded Johnston in 1995.

Wyden and Murkowski have largely collaborated on a committee that has long been more about regional than partisan issues, although Wyden is far more liberal on most issues than Murkowski. The collaboration is likely to continue if Landrieu, generally considered a conservative Democrat, becomes the committee head. She and Murkowski have common interests in oil and gas issues, which may draw the two party committee leaders close on substantive issues. Landrieu’s reelection may be crucial to the Obama administration’s control of the Senate in the 114th Congress, but her survival may end up being a thorn in the administration’s energy policy side.