Game of musical chairs set to begin — as agendas of new leaders start to take shape

Source: Nick Juliano, E&E reporter • Posted: Friday, February 7, 2014

With Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) officially heading to China as the next U.S. ambassador, his colleagues can begin in earnest to plan the shifts in energy and tax policy expected to be ushered in with his absence.

Baucus’ exit means Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) will take his place atop the Senate Finance Committee and Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) will take over for Wyden as chairwoman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Both moves are likely to lead to a shift in emphasis at both committees, although the senators are still crafting the agendas they will pursue in their new roles.

Landrieu said she is planning to sit down soon with top energy Republican Lisa Murkowski of Alaska to discuss the committee’s agenda. The two are largely aligned in their support for policies favored by the oil and gas industry, which is prevalent in both of their states. But Landrieu said she has not yet fully crafted her priority list.

“Everything we do is going to be part of helping build the middle class and opportunities for entrepreneurship in the domestic energy sector,” Landrieu told reporters in the Capitol yesterday. “So I’m excited to work with both Republicans and Democrats to accomplish that.”

Wyden has said extending the renewable energy production tax credit, efficiency incentives and dozens of expired business tax breaks — collectively known as extenders — is a top priority for him when he takes over the Finance panel. Speaking to reporters after the Baucus vote, according to Bloomberg, Wyden said, “I do feel that it’s important to make them a bridge to comprehensive tax reform.”

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), the ranking member on Finance, said he and Wyden had spoken informally about the committee’s agenda but that the incoming chairman had taken pains to avoid overstepping his bounds before Baucus’ official confirmation, which came yesterday afternoon on a 96-0 vote (E&ENews PM, Feb. 6). Asked about extenders, Hatch said they would not be his preference but that he would defer to Wyden.

“I’m willing to do whatever the chairman wants to do, but I have to admit I think tax extenders, we ought to get out of that game and get into formal tax reform,” Hatch said. “Maybe Senator Wyden will bring a forceful presence for real tax reform. I hope so. I’ll be there to help him.”

Landrieu’s support for the oil and gas industry has a tendency to rankle environmentalists — witness anti-Keystone XL pipeline campaigners suggesting her on a list of possible targets for anti-KXL ads earlier this week (E&E Daily, Feb. 6).

Landrieu is also a top target of Republicans this year as she seeks a fourth term.

But Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), one of the top climate crusaders on Capitol Hill, had a more sanguine take on her ascension, suggesting she could help broker agreements and dampen some industry supporters’ emphasis on denying climate change.

“I respect that people who have that home-state profile are going to work to try to hear the interests of their constituents and make sure those views are reflected in the United States Congress. That’s as old as representation,” Whitehouse said at an event hosted by Politico yesterday morning.

“The concern I have is that the industry has gotten into such a reckless, selfish and bullying posture politically that you can’t actually have discussions about things with them. … So it actually may prove to our benefit that somebody like Mary can come in and broker what is now, I think, a very dangerous position — frankly, for the coal and oil industry.”

Whitehouse went on to note that the industry’s success in preventing aggressive climate legislation would not last forever.

“But that’s a game that runs out. And when it runs out, if you’ve never been decent along the way, then payback is a — tough thing,” Whitehouse said. “So it actually could be best.”

‘Climate change — we’re all in this together’

After the Senate voted to confirm Baucus as President Obama’s nominee to be the next ambassador to China, Baucus told reporters that he was not sure when he would leave for Beijing and that timing of the decision was up to the president.

Montana Gov. Steve Bullock (D) has scheduled a news conference for noon EST time today to discuss the appointment of Baucus’ temporary successor in the Senate. He is widely expected to choose Lt. Gov. John Walsh (D), who is already running to replace Baucus in this year’s election. Republicans have targeted the seat, with Rep. Steve Daines their likely nominee.

Senate aides said yesterday it was unclear when the new committee leaders would take their positions, but Landrieu said she assumed they would be in place sometime next week. A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) did not respond to requests for comment. Senate Rule XXIV, which governs committee assignments, says that when vacancies arise, “the Senate, unless otherwise ordered, shall by resolution appoint the chairman of each such committee and the other members thereof.”

With Landrieu taking over Energy and Natural Resources, Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) is expected to become chairwoman of the Small Business Committee, which Landrieu now heads. Assuming that happens, Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) is in line to take Cantwell’s place as chairman of the Indian Affairs Committee.

More change to Senate leadership is inevitable in the next Congress, with the pending retirements of four other committee chairmen: Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) at Health, Education, Labor and Pensions; Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) at Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs; Carl Levin (D-Mich.) at Armed Services; and Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) at Commerce, Science and Transportation.

In his farewell address, Baucus noted his great appreciation, as a Montana native, of the great outdoors and shared lessons he learned when he hitchhiked around the world as a young man in the early 1960s. Among the lessons, he said, were that natural resources are being depleted and technological advancement is making the world an ever more connected place.

Those lessons will be applied in China, which is facing challenges of protecting the environment as its economy grows rapidly. Baucus travels to the country with less than two years remaining until world leaders hope to come to a legally binding agreement to limit greenhouse gas emissions through the United Nations, and he hinted that such issues would be among those he will focus on in Beijing.

“Climate change — we’re all in this together,” he said.