Baucus Retirement Could Put Landrieu in Top Energy Spot

Musical chairs could put La. Democrat in line to lead Energy and Natural Resources Committee

Posted April 24, 2013 at 10:55am

The musical chairmanship game set off by Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus’ retirement could put one of the Democrats’ biggest oil and gas industry boosters in charge of the Energy panel — and simultaneously improve her re-election chances.

Louisiana Democrat Mary L. Landrieu is currently third in the Energy and Natural Resources Committee’s pecking order, following Chairman Ron Wyden of Oregon and South Dakota’s Tim Johnson, who is also retiring at the end of his term. Wyden is next in line for the Finance Committee gavel in the 114th Congress — an opening on one of the most powerful committees in Congress that could be hard for the tax policy technocrat to pass up.

Landrieu is facing a tough campaign to keep her seat in a “red” state. Republican Rep. Bill Cassidy has already announced he will challenge her, and Landrieu is a prime target in the GOP campaign to win control of the Senate. While Landrieu is among the more conservative Democrats in the Senate, Republicans have been attacking her for votes to support President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul and to back broader background checks for gun buyers.

But Louisiana political analysts say the prospect of taking charge at a committee so critical to her state’s economy would help Landrieu raise campaign money from oil and gas interests and be a selling point with voters.

“That would be huge,” said Clancy DuBos, a Louisiana political analyst and columnist. It has been more than 20 years ago since Democrat J. Bennett Johnston — whom Landrieu replaced in the Senate — chaired the Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

DuBos said Landrieu has consistently worked to secure support from Republican oil interests in her state. Energy-related political action committees contributed $196,800 to Landrieu — more than any other interest group — in the last election cycle, according to PoliticalMoneyLine. And the Center for Responsive Politics reports that employees and political action committees affiliated with the New Orleans-based utility Entergy Corp. were Landrieu’s top overall contributors since 2007.

The possibility of an Energy chairmanship could make those donors even more enthusiastic — and could help her critics at home forget about the health care and background check votes.

“I think people in Louisiana might be willing to forgive a lot,” DuBos said.

While Landrieu’s re-election is critical to Democratic hopes of retaining control of the Senate, it’s possible that the GOP could capture the Senate in any event. That would leave Landrieu in the less glamorous position of ranking minority member of the committee. But even then, her alliance on energy issues with Alaska Republican Lisa Murkowski — in line to become chairwoman should the GOP win the Senate — would leave Landrieu in an influential position.

Landrieu has been a consistent and aggressive backer of domestic oil and gas production and offshore drilling in particular. She has worked hard to secure for her state a share of the royalties from energy production in coastal waters.

She also has sided with Republicans on other energy issues, for example, backing a joint resolution in 2010 to disapprove an EPA finding that greenhouse gases qualify as dangerous pollutants under the Clean Air Act and supporting a bill to block the agency from regulating carbon pollution the next year.

As Landrieu has accrued seniority in the chamber — she currently leads the Small Business Committee and the Homeland Security spending panel — she has improved her campaign skills, particularly on moderate voter outreach, DuBos said. He also noted that she has won her last three Senate elections by a larger margin each time.

John Maginnis, a Louisiana political columnist, said Landrieu’s pro-business reputation within the oil and gas industry coupled with the chance for the Energy gavel can only help her re-election chances and fill her campaign coffers.

“Certainly I think that would help her raise money,” he said.

But he cautioned that it can only take her so far with average voters who may not appreciate the benefits to the state of its senator’s seniority.

“I think it would be a marginal plus for her,” Maginnis said.