All eyes will be on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee this session as it attempts to craft a legislative proposal to match President Obama's prime-time statement last week that he wants to source 80 percent of the nation's energy from low-carbon sources by 2035. But with an influx of new members, questions remain about how cohesive the panel will be on energy issues.
Seven freshmen and one veteran senator are joining the 22-member panel this year in a shakeup that could threaten the historically bipartisan committee's ability to move on energy legislation, including the clean energy standard that Obama touted last week.
"It's going to be tough; it's going to be challenging to come up with a consensus," said Joshua Freed, director of the Clean Energy Program at Third Way, a centrist Democratic think tank.
The roster changes are sparked by the departures of six members from the Senate and three additional departures from the committee. Joining the panel are third-year Democrat Al Franken of Minnesota and freshmen Democrats Chris Coons of Delaware and Joe Manchin of West Virginia.
Five freshmen Republicans -- Mike Lee of Utah, Rand Paul of Kentucky, Dan Coats of Indiana, Rob Portman of Ohio and John Hoeven of North Dakota -- will also join the panel. Paul and Lee are political newcomers, but the other three are veteran officeholders: Coats is a former senator and congressman, while Hoeven is a former governor, and Portman served in the House and in former President George W. Bush's Cabinet.
The political ideologies of some of the new members could disrupt the panel's ability to pass bipartisan legislation this year. Specifically, the influence of tea party-backed Lee and Paul and wild card Democrat Manchin could play a significant factor in the committee's energy discussions.
Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), the chairman of the committee, for one, is uncertain whether the membership changes will force the committee to swing to the right. But he remains hopeful the committee can continue working in a bipartisan fashion.
"Well, what about Senator Franken? Senator Coons? We've got two who might not swing to the right, maybe one who would," Bingaman said of his party's new members. "I don't know."
And as for the views of the five new Republicans, Bingaman added, "It's hard to know until we get into the discussion of specific issues."
But on the issues, the new members -- especially Lee and Paul -- tend to be trending far to the right.
Paul last week floated a measure that would cut $500 billion a year in government spending, including the complete elimination of the Energy Department. And Lee wants to open up access to new oil and gas reserves in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and to oil shale reserves in Utah, Colorado and Wyoming.
Manchin, on the other hand, in a campaign ad last fall famously shot through Democrats' cap-and-trade proposal.
But the moderate Democrat could be an asset in finding common ground across the aisle. Republican Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, for one, said he is looking forward to working with Manchin.
"I think we've got some good members on the Republican side, and I think we've got some good members on the Democrat side, like Joe Manchin, who understand energy policy, understand the need for it, and more importantly, see movement forward as a blend of everything that's out there if we want a successful blueprint," Burr said.
Some of the Republican freshmen -- like Portman, Coats and Hoeven -- with experience working with Democrats could also be crucial to moving energy legislation this year.
Hoeven, for instance, has expressed interest in creating incentives for renewables. "I see incredible opportunity across all these subsectors of energy if we promote them all, create the right legal, tax and regulatory environment so that we can get these companies to invest in these new technologies, do new things in new innovative ways, you not only produce more energy, you do it with better environmental stewardship and you create jobs," Hoeven said during an interview in the Capitol this week.
The former North Dakota governor helped increase development of the wind industry in his state, including a push to build new transmission lines and for stronger tax incentives for renewable industries. But he is an advocate for oil and gas interests as well.
"My view is we've got to promote all of the sources of energy and we've got to create a climate where they can all come forward," he said.
Third Way's Freed is optimistic about the committee's ability to work in a bipartisan manner on legislation like a clean energy standard.
"While there are some wildcards like Senator Lee and Senator Paul, there are a number of senators who have a long track record of working across the aisle," Freed said. "That provides a real opening, particularly on an issue like a clean energy standard to get people around the table talking."
"That's all we need this early in the process," he added.
And the committee members will also have the example of its leaders. Bingaman and ranking member Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) have historically had a good working relationship, which is unlikely to change in the new Congress.
Murkowski, who calls her new roster of Republicans a "good mix," said last night that she and Bingaman have held several long meetings to discuss legislative priorities.
"We're kind of talking about some of those logistics right now and trying to find some of those areas of agreement," she said.
White House meeting
One area that is sure to find its ways into discussions of both Democrats and Republicans is Obama's proposal for a clean energy mandate. Bingaman, who has historically opposed such a measure in favor of mandates that support only renewables, yesterday met with Obama at the White House to discuss energy policy.
In an interview, Bingaman called the sit-down "very constructive, very productive." But he said he and the president did not use the time to hash out any specifics on a clean energy standard.
"Both the president and I agreed that Congress has a real opportunity to work together on bipartisan legislation to advance our energy and economic security," Bingaman added in a prepared statement. "I told President Obama that I plan to work with my colleagues on both sides of the Energy Committee aisle to develop workable legislative proposals that can achieve his clean energy goals."
Reporters Jean Chemnick and John McArdle contributed.
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