New Mexico Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D) has worked with 270 other senators during his 30-year tenure in the Senate, but unlike many of those who have come before him, he's not looking to make a splashy exit.
Quiet-spoken Bingaman, 69, is winding down five terms in the Senate and said he's looking forward to heading home to Santa Fe as soon as Congress wraps up its business for the year. His wife, Anne -- a lawyer who has had a successful Washington, D.C., career in her own right -- left this past weekend.
Amid a political landscape mired in partisanship, Bingaman, the longtime top Democrat on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, is careful to use the word "we" when discussing his legacy, which he says includes the Senate's passage of sweeping energy bills in 2005 and 2007, its passage of a broad omnibus public lands package in 2009 and its work on energy efficiency.
"We've done some good on that," Bingaman said of the Senate's work on energy efficiency during an interview this week at his suite of offices in the Hart building, where staffers were diligently packing up boxes and placing dibs on donated artwork and legislative mementos collected over the years.
To be sure, Bingaman, who has chaired the committee since 2007, will leave his mark on Capitol Hill -- from the energy-efficient light-emitting diode, or LED, lights he had installed in his Hart office suite to his work on energy and public lands bills large and small.
"I've tried to concentrate on energy production that is less harmful to the environment, and that means transitioning to a clean energy economy," Bingaman said.
Just yesterday, President Obama signed into law a package of energy efficiency legislation that contains language Bingaman helped craft over the years and that he helped usher through the particularly divided halls of the 112th Congress (E&ENews PM, Dec. 18).
Colleagues say they'll miss his leadership style and his willingness to reach across the aisle when necessary.
"I just appreciated his very calm leadership demeanor," said Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski, the ranking member on the Energy Committee. "He's been a good guy to work with."
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who will take over the gavel of the Energy Committee next year, said he'll miss Bingaman's "refreshing" approach to legislating.
"At a time when people are understandably so frustrated ... and unhappy at government for a variety of reasons, Jeff Bingaman gives public service a good name. He makes debates more thoughtful, well informed and I'm going to miss him," Wyden said, adding that he has joked with Bingaman about the big shoes he'll have to fill on the committee.
"They're Shaq-sized" shoes, Wyden said. "They're enormous."
Bingaman says he'll miss his colleagues as well.
"I've enjoyed working with all of them," Bingaman said of the senators he's worked with since 1983, after toppling incumbent Sen. Harrison Schmitt (R) following a four-year stint as New Mexico's attorney general. He said he'll especially miss working with Democratic Sens. Kent Conrad of North Dakota, who is also retiring this year, and Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, who might step down in 2014.
The sentiment is mutual.
"Jeff Bingaman is one of my very best friends in all of life -- forget the Senate," Rockefeller told reporters yesterday in the Capitol. "I hate it that he's leaving."
Conrad recalled joking with Bingaman and Rockefeller during Finance Committee markups of the health care reform legislation and said he would be missed in the Senate.
"Jeff is Mr. Smith who came to Washington," Conrad said. "He is who you would hope would represent you in the U.S. Senate, 'cause he takes it so seriously and he's such a genuinely good person -- he also has a very sly sense of humor."
Conrad added, "If there ever was somebody who fit the mold, it's him. He is so honest and decent and, you know, focused on trying to make things better."
Bingaman does, however, have regrets. He counts a clean energy standard, which would require utilities to generate a certain percentage of their electricity from low-carbon sources, among the legislative items he wishes could have passed during his tenure in Washington. Early this year, Bingaman floated clean energy standard legislation that saw face time in the committee but little attention beyond its Dirksen meeting room. In previous years, he had also pushed for a stricter renewable energy standard.
"I think a very big challenge for the next Congress -- something I wish we could have done -- is to pass some kind of regime to provide a financial incentive for utility companies to move to cleaner energy production," he said. "I think something like a clean energy standard -- which is limited to the power generation sector of the economy and allows for the production of ... electricity from any source as long as you can demonstrate that it meets the standard -- I think that's the right framework."
He added, "I hope the next Congress can find some bipartisan support for that concept."
Bingaman said he also wished his bills to designate new recreation, conservation and wilderness areas in New Mexico could have passed while he was in the Senate.
And he expressed some regret over the Senate's lack of passage of offshore drilling reform legislation in the wake of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon drilling rig blowout and oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
"I do think it's safer now," he said of the offshore drilling industry. But "I don't know that I'm totally persuaded that it's adequate."
During the last Congress, the Energy Committee easily cleared offshore drilling safety language in the immediate aftermath of the BP PLC disaster. But that language stalled before it reached the full Senate. Nearly identical language faced a tougher slog in the current Congress, failing to clear even the committee. The measure was held up by efforts to insert controversial revenue-sharing language that would direct a hefty portion of federal revenues from offshore energy development to coastal states -- something Bingaman is staunchly opposed to.
"I do think it's bad public policy to take the revenue from oil and gas drilling off the coast and in the outer continental shelf, which is federal property, and turn a significant amount of that over to coastal states," Bingaman said.
"I think it's entirely appropriate that when penalties are assessed like they have been against ... BP because of the catastrophe we had in the Gulf that the lion's share of that money go to the coastal states that are having to clean up the damage," he added. "But as a matter of long-term policy for the country, I think the revenue stream for the outer continental shelf ought to be something that the federal government gets and that the federal government decides what to do."
Still, he said, he is not worried about what will come of that legislation in the next Congress, as rumors have started swirling that Murkowski and Wyden may be able to come to a consensus on the issue. "It will be a decision for whoever's here in the next Congress. It won't be a decision for me," Bingaman said.
Bingaman isn't resigning himself from energy policy altogether.
"I've spent a lot of time on these issues over the past 30 years, and I think they're important to the country, and I hope to stay involved with them," he said.
But he remained mum on whether he'd be returning to Washington in another capacity. Bingaman has been listed as a possible contender for a Cabinet-level position at the Energy Department if current Energy Secretary Steven Chu resigns.
"I'm not looking for a job. I'm not trying to get the administration to appoint me to something," he said. "I'm hoping to stay involved in these issues in some way, but I don't know in what way."
To be sure, Bingaman would bring an arsenal of knowledge on energy issues to whatever job -- if any -- he decides to take next. During his time in the Senate, he's worked on a vast array of energy policy issues amid an ever-changing political climate.
"When I came to the Senate, I think most of us thought of energy pretty much as issues related to production of energy and use of energy, and there was ... a little bit of focus on energy efficiency, but there wasn't a great focus on environmental impacts of energy production and transportation and use," Bingaman said.
"As we've learned about climate change and global warming and greenhouse gas emissions, it's become obvious that energy is an integral part of all of those issues and is a substantial driver of all those issues," he added. "I think the definition of energy issues has broadened to include all of those ... for me and ... for the country as a whole."
Reporters Jean Chemnick, Nick Juliano and Manuel Quinones contributed.