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For Barrasso, a tough and impactful choice for the new Congress

No matter who wins control of the chamber, Wyoming’s junior senator will affect transportation policies, climate change legislation and other issues.

Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming will affect transportation policies, climate change legislation, nuclear oversight and wildlife issues.
Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming will affect transportation policies, climate change legislation, nuclear oversight and wildlife issues. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)

While the nation’s political eyes descend on Georgia, where two Senate races in January will decide which party will control the chamber, advocates for environmental, energy and transportation issues are also watching Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., curious about which committee he may opt to lead in the next Congress.

If Republicans retain control of the chamber, he could remain chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, where he could mold the next highway reauthorization bill — a significant legislative task — and oversee the EPA during President-elect Joe Biden’s administration. But Barrasso could also become chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, the current chairwoman, is stepping down from that perch at the end of this Congress and Barrasso is next in line by seniority.

If Democrats take control of the Senate, Barrasso could have his choice of ranking member roles. But no matter who wins control, Wyoming’s junior senator will affect transportation policies, climate change legislation, nuclear oversight and wildlife issues.

Normally forthcoming, Barrasso has remained quiet on his plans, saying he wants to talk to his staff first. “We’ll keep you posted,” he told a reporter last week.

[Barrasso stakes claim to chair Energy and Natural Resources]

On Monday he said his primary focus is ensuring that Republicans maintain the Senate majority.

“We’re in the middle of discussing all those opportunities for us,” he said, adding that he was originally scheduled for two more years as the GOP head on EPW.

Barrasso has good reason to be torn, said a transportation lobbyist who spoke on the condition of anonymity. 

EPW has to reauthorize the highway bill, a hulking task under any scenario, and would likely be the first stop for climate change legislation. The panel passed its reauthorization bill (S 2302) in July 2019, but that legislation never passed the full Senate. Congress ultimately passed a one-year extension of the 2015 highway law (PL 114-94) after lawmakers could not reconcile differences between the EPW bill and the House bill (HR 2), which was far more aggressive in addressing climate change than the Senate version.

Learning curve

If Barrasso leaves the top spot at EPW, Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., would be next in line and likely share many of Barrasso’s priorities, though she has shown more of an interest than he has in water pollution issues and contamination from per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, which are toxic chemicals found in common household goods.

The logistics of a reshuffle would mean committee Republicans would have to redo the highway bill largely from scratch and hire new staff for their side of the committee. 

“It’s going to take some time,” the lobbyist said. “But if it’s Barrasso, they can pick up where they left off last year. From an industry perspective, we’re really hoping he stays.” 

If Republicans retain the Senate majority and Barrasso stays at EPW, he could emerge as a foil for the Biden administration, hampering the confirmation process for positions at EPA. Barrasso was a vocal critic of the agency and its climate agenda during the Obama administration.

Moving to helm Energy and Natural Resources also makes sense for Barrasso, whose state is home to significant fossil fuel activity, uranium mining and huge chunks of federal land.

The Energy committee oversees the Interior Department, which is in charge of leasing federal territory for drilling and mining, as well as grazing. Oversight of agencies like the National Park Service and the Bureau of Land Management could prove appealing to Barrasso, who, like many conservatives from the West, largely chafed against federal agencies’ control in their states.

The musical chairs in the Senate matter. Sen. Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, who said Tuesday he tested positive for COVID-19 and is in quarantine, has reached the end of his term as chairman of the Finance Committee and is expected to head the Judiciary Committee. Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, could fill his vacated spot. 

That move would leave open the chairmanship for the Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee — a void Sen. Patrick J. Toomey, R-Pa., is expected to occupy.

Combined, the moving parts will have an impact on how the Senate approaches its reauthorization of the surface transportation bill. Barrasso led efforts in 2019 to pass a bipartisan, five-year, $287 billion highway bill through the committee. The Democratic-led House passed a $494 billion highway bill in 2020, and disagreements in both measures ultimately led to Congress passing a one-year reauthorization instead. 

While EPW has jurisdiction over highways, three other Senate committees have jurisdiction over elements of the surface transportation bill: Commerce, Science and Transportation has safety and rail issues, Banking works on transit and Senate Finance determines how to pay for everything. 

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