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Energy chair aids Sen. Landrieu’s re-election

23rd December 2013   ·   0 Comments

By Christopher Tidmore
Contributing Writer

Bennett Johnston was never a popular U.S. Senator for the voters of Louisiana. Not beloved, at least, the way his colleague John Breaux managed. However, every time the Republicans would put forward an “A” list candidate against Johnson, he had a strong reply, “I chair the Energy Committee.” In a state dependent on oil and gas, that level of influence could not afford to be lost.

Now, Mary Landrieu looks to be able to say the same just in time for the 2014 elections. Thanks to a surprise White House appointment for one of her colleagues, she might move up into the Chairmanship of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee prior to next November.

One National GOP strategist noted to this newspaper several months ago that “control of the U.S. Senate went through Jefferson Parish.” While that may be a slight oversimplification, the statement does contain the truth that here are a cadre of ‘only-a-Landrieu’ swing voters in the River Parishes. And, this usually Republican electorate, that tends to crossover if Mary (or Mitch) appears on the ballot, also generally works in some related capacity to the oil industry.

Therein lies the rub. The LaGOP hopes to make the case that this core metro New Orleans electorate is better served with defeating Mary Landrieu and electing a GOP Senate rather than sending the local girl back to Washington. It was an argument that seemed to be working, thanks to the failed rollout of Obamacare. Now the Democrats have a counter argument. When it comes to economics, better the devil the River Parishes know — if she can keep drilling alive.

Or, at least, that’s the hope of Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid and the Obama Administration banked upon early Thursday morning. The White House announced that retiring U.S. Senator Max Baucus would be immediately appointed as the new Ambas­sador to China. The Montanan would resign earlier than the 2014 elections, and likely, that state’s Democratic Governor Steve Bullock would appoint the main Democratic contender to succeed Baucus, his own Lt. Governor John Walsh.

Not only would that give Walsh a potential advantage come November in a seat the Republicans had been favored to win, but it would also open up Baucus’s Chairmanship of the Senate Finance Committee, one of the Upper House’s most powerful positions.

This influential leadership post would prove an irresistible temptation for the current Chairman of Energy and Natural Resources, Ron Wyden. The Oregon Democrat not only stands next in line in seniority on the Finance Committee; he also desperately craves the chance to fundamentally reform the tax code. Just two weeks ago, Wyden said that the Income Tax Code was 100 years out of date, and co-sponsored a plan with Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind., that would eliminate several tax breaks and lower tax rates.

While Republicans would hate the fact that the Montana Senate race entered “toss up” category, they would likely be thrilled with Wyden’s advancement. The Oregon Senator is something of a maverick, having co-authored the Ryan Medicare Reform Act with the House GOP Budget Chairman.

Only Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va. has more seniority than Wyden for the Finance post, and Rockefeller told reporters Thursday, right after the Baucus appointment, that he loved being chairman of the Commerce, Science and Technology Committee. Besides, he was retiring next year anyway. It signaled that the West Virginian would clear the way for the Oregonian to quickly take over the Finance chairmanship. Yet to accept it, Wyden would have to give up his position as head of Energy and Natural Resources, making room for the next in line, Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana.

The Oregon Senator brushed aside reporters’ questions before a hearing of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing Thursday morning. “We’re just not commenting on it,” said Wyden spokesman Tom Towslee, “because first of all, Baucus has not said anything officially.”

The comment unspokenly referenced the small wrinkle in this proverbial “win-win” proposition. Environmentalists are not exactly enthusiastic at trading Wyden, an ideological ally, with Landrieu, due to Louisiana Senator’s support of fracking, expanded offshore drilling in the gulf, drilling in ANWAR, and, most particularly, the Keystone Pipeline. This is not an irrelevant concern, as the environmental movement did succeed in ousting in 2009 Michigan Congressman John Dingell from the House Energy and Commerce committee when he opposed higher emission standards. It is not insurmountable either. The precarious political position of the Democratic Party in 2014 is a far cry from the triumphalist progressives after Obama’s first inauguration.

However, prior to the Baucus appointment, Landrieu could only run on a record that was complicated to explain to the voters, however popular, like her work on Morganza-to-the-Gulf, Fort Polk, or Hurricane wetland defense.

Now she has something concrete to offer, the Energy Chairmanship. Before the David Duke race, one wit told Bennett Johnson that the only reason he got elected was “no one cares about the Senate, Bennett.” But, the Energy industry cares about jobs, and so do the people employed in them.

Of course, that’s dependent on the Democrats holding the US Senate. Should North Carolina’s Kay Hagan, Arkansas’ David Pryor, Alaska’s Mark Beglich all fall, control of the Senate will come down to either the re-election of Mary Landrieu or Jeanne Shaheen.

Landrieu has two advantages besides the Energy Chairmanship going into a race against Cong. Bill Cassidy and the other Republicans. She has nearly $6 million in cash on hand to Cassidy’s $3.5 million, and while the anti-Obamacare strain is strong in Louisiana, Landrieu’s camp points to the victory of Republican Vance McAllister in the special election for Louisiana’s 5th Congressional District over GOP state Sen. Neil Riser. McAllister.

While the newly elected GOP member gain press for his backing by the Robertson Clan of Duck Dynasty fame, more telling was that he resisted a complete repeal of the law. McCallister encouraged Gov. Jindal to accept expanded Medicaid funds, for example, and supported adjustments to grandfathering provision very similar to Landrieu’s bill.

“Mend the bill, not end it”, worked in a district who’s demographics very closely resemble the state as a whole.

This article originally published in the December 23, 2013 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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