Apparently unbowed by Harry Reid's very public interest in deciding who becomes the nation's top energy regulator, senators yesterday floated a plan to break a confirmation logjam that is unlikely to find a warm reception in the majority leader's office.
The idea is to swap the roles that would be filled by two pending nominees to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Cheryl LaFleur would be confirmed as FERC chairwoman, the position she currently holds on an acting basis, and Norman Bay would become a FERC commissioner, instead of ascending to the chairman's slot for which he was nominated.
One problem is that Reid, the Nevada Democrat who controls what makes it to the Senate floor, recently declared on the front page of one of the country's highest-circulation newspapers that he had maneuvered to prevent LaFleur from being nominated to permanently lead FERC.
In an interview published in The Wall Street Journal on Sunday, Reid said, "I don't want her as chair."
Meanwhile, Bay has faced bipartisan criticism over his lack of energy chops, keeping his nomination in limbo. A vote in the Energy and Natural Resources Committee had been expected this week but was delayed amid the ongoing negotiations, senators said yesterday. Committee aides did not respond to requests for comment.
Republicans, in the meantime, have repeatedly questioned why President Obama would demote a "very capable woman" by not asking LaFleur to stay on as chairwoman -- a potential counter to Democrats' political attacks attempting to paint the GOP as unresponsive to women's concerns.
While FERC does not typically attract much attention outside energy circles, the commission has substantial influence over the utility industry, and its leader has broad latitude in setting its priorities. Former Chairman Jon Wellinghoff, a Nevadan and Reid ally, focused on policies like demand response and Order 1000, which encouraged more renewable energy deployment and pushed the evolution of the electric grid. Reid is seen as skeptical of LaFleur because she comes from a more traditional utility background and may not be as ambitious in trying to modernize how energy is delivered.
Still, the plan floated yesterday could quash concerns from Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), an ENR Committee member who has reservations about Bay's lack of experience.
"I think that would be great for all the naysayers that say he doesn't have experience. It would be a way for him to get regulatory experience, and you know, hopefully, everybody can go along with that," Manchin told reporters.
Any agreement also would need to be endorsed by the White House, because it is up to the president, not Congress, to appoint FERC's chief. Typically, presidents do not offer nominations specifically for the leadership post, but Obama has twice. His earlier nominee for FERC chairman, Ron Binz, withdrew his name after encountering stiff resistance from free-market and fossil-energy interest groups.
Senators and aides from both parties yesterday stressed that negotiations were ongoing and that no deal had yet been reached. One possible compromise being discussed would have LaFleur remain as chairwoman for a limited time -- perhaps just six months or a year -- to let Bay get some experience before taking over as chairman.
"What we're trying to do is we're trying to figure out what the realm of possibility is," said Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), the Energy Committee's ranking member.
Bay's supporters were privately optimistic that he would be confirmed as chairman, a result that even some ENR Republicans, such as Ohio's Rob Portman, have said is likely. To that end, Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) yesterday said he was "leaning" toward supporting Bay's nomination.
Negotiations over the potential swap had been ongoing even before Reid's comments in The Wall Street Journal, according to Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.), a member of ENR. Hoeven said he had spoken to Bay about the idea two to three weeks ago and had been involved in discussions with senators even before that.
ENR Chairwoman Mary Landrieu (D-La.) confirmed that there were negotiations over a swap but said no decisions had been made, according to The Hill. She said Reid would not necessarily have to sign off on any deal reached among committee members but acknowledged that he has a lot of power within the chamber as a whole.
"The issue is whether or not LaFleur should be chairman or not, and I would support that. But the majority has a different feeling," Heller told reporters. "They'd rather have Bay as chairman, so that's what the wrangling is going on."
Heller also said he generally supported Reid's efforts to influence FERC in order to bolster the prospects of their home state's renewable energy industries, such as geothermal and solar.
"We have the same interest in making alternative energy a real dominant force in the state of Nevada," he said.
The November elections cannot be ignored as a factor in these ongoing negotiations. Landrieu is facing among the toughest re-election races in the country, in which she is touting her ENR Committee gavel as a reason for Louisiana voters to keep her in Washington. While FERC may not be the most salient issue for the median voter there, a successful confirmation process -- especially one that did not comport exactly with Reid's wishes -- would bolster Landrieu's claim of being an independent voice capable of getting things done in the Senate.
Meanwhile, Democrats have spent months trying to boost their outreach to women voters with a focus on issues like equal pay. With LaFleur potentially in line for a demotion, Republicans seem to be sensing an opportunity to turn the tables.
"I was frankly surprised that the president of the United States would remove a very capable woman from the position of acting chair of the FERC and replace her with someone who had never been on," Barrasso told reporters yesterday. "It surprised me that the president would act in such a way against a very capable woman, qualified for the job, that he had nominated."
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