WHITE HOUSE

Obama not the best of friends with new Energy panel chief -- but does it matter?

It's no secret that Sen. Mary Landrieu isn't always on the same page as the White House and her caucus.

The Louisiana Democrat is a staunch advocate for oil and gas drilling, she's voted to nullify the Obama administration's climate regulations, and she's held up the confirmation of the president's budget director over a drilling moratorium.

"On energy, it has not been the warmest of relationships," a Landrieu staffer said of her rapport with the White House.

But President Obama and her more liberal colleagues are still likely to go to the mat to keep the new chairwoman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee around.

"I have always said that the president needs senators more than senators need the president," said ex-Sen. Bennett Johnston (D-La.), a former chairman of the same committee whose Senate seat Landrieu took over when he retired in 1997. "It's certainly in [Obama's] interest to keep the Senate Democrats in control."

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Landrieu's re-election this fall is anything but certain, and the Democrats' control of the chamber could hinge on just a few races -- especially hers.

Landrieu and Obama aren't known to have a particularly close personal relationship, although they overlapped during his four years in the Senate and co-sponsored a few bills and amendments. But then, Obama wasn't especially close with her two immediate predecessors at the Energy Committee, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and former Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.). She's got a longer track record with Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.); they've worked together for nearly two decades in the Senate -- and she's sometimes been a thorn in his side.

"I'm not sure if any other Democratic senator has given Senator Reid more headaches over the years than Senator Landrieu," said Jim Manley, a former longtime aide to Reid. "If I had a dollar for every time she's gummed up the works when the leadership tried to wrap something up, I'd be a rich guy."

But in the end, Reid "understands that she's got to do what she needs to do," Manley added. "She's got a lot of fans within the caucus."

Ultimately, political observers say, Democrats in the White House and the administration would far prefer to keep the moderate Democrat in her seat -- and atop the Energy Committee -- than risk losing control of the chamber.

The committee leadership position -- which opened at a fortunate time for the oil-state senator -- will almost certainly be a boon for Landrieu back home.

"This is a very powerful position for Mary," Johnston said. "Politically, there's only one side of the oil and gas debate, and that's pro-oil and gas, in Louisiana."

Johnston said he doesn't anticipate any high-stakes clashes on energy policy between Landrieu and the White House this year. "I don't see it as a big problem for either one, frankly, either for Mary Landrieu or for the president," he said.

"They're not going to be on the same wavelength on many of these issues, there's no doubt about that," Johnston conceded.

But with little room for big legislation in the current political environment -- particularly during an election year -- their differences might not matter as much as one might think.

Paul Bledsoe, a fellow with the German Marshall Fund and former Clinton White House aide, said, "because of the partisan gridlock, the traditional close relationships between key chairmen and the administration could have a tendency to atrophy."

For one thing, much of Obama's energy agenda in the near term involves using his regulatory power to circumvent Congress. As he made clear in his State of the Union address last month, he'll be plowing ahead with climate regulations through U.S. EPA, where Landrieu doesn't have jurisdiction.

Landrieu's vocal support for the approval of the controversial Keystone XL oil pipeline has given green groups the shivers, but that decision lies with the executive branch.

One area where she might clash with the White House is on nominations. For starters, Louisiana's GOP lawmakers are urging her to oppose Obama's pick to lead the Interior Department's wildlife and parks programs, arguing that the nominee would hinder energy development and property rights in the Pelican State (E&ENews PM, Feb. 11).

Landrieu's committee has jurisdiction over other Energy Department, Interior and Federal Energy Regulatory Commission nominees. Obama's pick to lead FERC, Norman Bay, is facing a confirmation hearing before her panel, though it has yet to be scheduled (Greenwire, Feb. 11).

Come 2015 -- if Landrieu still has her Senate seat and the Democrats still hold the chamber -- the landscape could be drastically different.

Bledsoe, for one, thinks there could be major energy legislation next year once the dust from the election has settled.

"I actually think that we're likely to see a significant bill after the election -- assuming the Democrats keep control of the Senate -- out of Chairman Landrieu."

Bledsoe said he thinks the administration and Landrieu are more closely aligned than it may seem when it comes to energy policy.

"I think that the president has gotten a bum rap as being anti-oil and gas production," Bledsoe said, adding that he sees Obama as "bullish" on domestic oil and natural gas production. "I think her pro-supply agenda is, in fact, very welcomed by the White House and by a lot of Democrats, too."

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