Hill staffers gird for 2015 policy fights

Fifth in a series on energy and environment staffers worth watching in 2015.

Republican victories in the midterms will mean more action next year in Congress, with energy and environmental policymaking near the top of the new majority's priority list.

Incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) promises to restore "regular order" when he takes the helm next year, meaning a return to the kinds of sometimes-contentious amendment debates that fell out of favor over the last few years. And with Republicans on both sides of the Capitol planning to work closely together crafting bills they can send to the White House, deals will have to be struck with Democrats on items that would be able to earn the president's signature and achieve the 60 votes necessary for passage in the Senate.

Top issues up for consideration include the Keystone XL pipeline; U.S. EPA rules affecting power plants, farmers, mining companies, and the oil and gas industry; exports of liquefied natural gas and crude oil; tax incentives for energy companies and conservation; and reauthorization of the highway bill.

Lawmakers will be busy trying to cut deals and advance bills in those and other areas. Here are some of the House and Senate aides who will be helping them along the way.


Neil Chatterjee, senior policy adviser, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell

A native of Lexington, Ky., Chatterjee knows what makes his boss's constituents tick, and he has developed a rich network of connections on Capitol Hill and across town in more than a decade in Washington, D.C.

Chatterjee has worked for McConnell since 2009, first as a staff assistant and now as a policy adviser whose portfolio includes energy, environment, agriculture and natural resources issues. He has aided McConnell's efforts to beat back what the leader sees as an overreaching federal government waging a "war on coal" with tough regulations from U.S. EPA and other agencies.

McConnell earlier this year unsuccessfully sought a vote on a Congressional Review Act resolution to block EPA's still-unfinalized new source performance standard limiting greenhouse gas emissions from existing power plants. He also sought amendments targeting the rules during consideration of an energy efficiency bill, when the Appropriations Committee was set to mark up its annual spending bill and at numerous other opportunities. Chatterjee's advice will be sought throughout the year as McConnell resumes those efforts.

"One of the things that sets Neil apart from the pack is his depth of knowledge on the policy as well as his incredible strategic insight," said Rebecca Rosen, a former Senate aide and adviser to Mitt Romney's presidential campaign who is now vice president of policy and government affairs at Devon Energy, an oil and gas drilling company. "His ability to anticipate how people will act and how complex situations will play out is absolutely amazing."

Before joining McConnell's office, Chatterjee spent more than two years as a lobbyist for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, prior to which he worked on Capitol Hill for the House Republican Policy Conference, then-Rep. Deborah Pryce (R-Ohio), and the Ways and Means Committee stretching back to 2003, according to the congressional staff database LegiStorm. He graduated from St. Lawrence University and received a law degree from the University of Cincinnati College of Law.

Alex McDonough, senior policy adviser, Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid

McDonough has been Reid's senior adviser on energy, environment, public lands and natural resources issues for the past two years. A Las Vegas native, he has been working in Reid's office since 2006 in a variety of roles, with a portfolio that includes aiding Reid's efforts to block nuclear waste disposal at Yucca Mountain and helping to pass water infrastructure legislation.

Chris Miller, who was Reid's senior adviser on these issues from 2005 through 2012, said McDonough has done a great job in the role, citing his legal background and ability to get along well with others.

"He's smart; he's politically astute; he's very thorough; he knows the issues," Miller said.

McDonough graduated from the University of Michigan with a bachelor's degree in political science and Russian studies and received his law degree from the American University Washington College of Law, according to LegiStorm.

Before he came to work for Reid, McDonough was working for the University of Maryland's IRIS Center on a U.S. Agency for International Development project in Central Asia, according to a biography posted by the Alliance to Save Energy.

Karen Billups, Republican staff director, Energy and Natural Resources Committee


Starting next year, energy policy in the Senate will revolve around Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), the incoming chairwoman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

Murkowski, the panel's current ranking member and a longtime energy industry ally, is expected to keep her committee staff in place once she takes over the ENR gavel from Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), who lost her seat in a runoff last weekend.

Leading the way will be Billups, the ENR Committee's Republican staff director and a seasoned energy policy hand who has worked on the panel since 2003. Expect Billups to play an important role on Murkowski's team as the senator pushes to end the ban on crude oil exports, boost offshore oil development and burnish her energy credentials ahead of her re-election battle in 2016.

Prior to joining the ENR Committee, Billups did a stint as a lobbyist and attorney for Entergy Corp. Billups also worked on ENR for Murkowski's father, former Sen. Frank Murkowski (R-Alaska), in the late 1990s. Before that, Billups served as a counsel for the House Energy and Commerce Committee and the Department of Energy.

Bettina Poirier, Democratic staff director, Environment and Public Works Committee

Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), a vocal climate change skeptic, will replace Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) as chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee in January, setting the stage for a high-profile clash on climate and environmental policy. While Inhofe hasn't announced his new staff, Boxer will rely on her longtime energy adviser Poirier to help her play defense on green issues in the 114th Congress.

Poirier will be looking for ways to fend off Republican attacks on the proposed power plant rule and other EPA regulations. Inhofe said recently that curbing EPA regulations would be a "top priority" when he takes over in January (E&ENews PM, Dec. 2). The committee's early focus in 2015 will also be on reauthorizing a highway spending bill that expires in May.

Poirier joined Boxer's office in 2001 and became the EPW Committee's Democratic staff director and chief counsel in 2006, after taking a two-year hiatus to work for retiring Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) on the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Prior to working for Boxer, Poirier, a New York City native, spent nine years as an Agriculture Department attorney.

This could be Poirier and Boxer's last years working together in the Senate. Boxer is up for re-election in 2016 but is rumored to be considering retirement instead of running for a fifth term.


Maryam Brown, policy adviser, House Speaker John Boehner

While plenty of people on Capitol Hill have experience working for the oil industry as lobbyists, far fewer have worked in a hands-on capacity beyond K Street. Not Brown, who went to work as a maintenance engineer for Amoco Oil Co. after graduating from Louisiana State University in 1996.

Now Brown advises Boehner on energy issues ranging from the KXL pipeline to EPA rules. She and Chatterjee are expected to work closely together in the coming year as Republicans work to craft a unified policy agenda on both sides of the Capitol.

"Maryam has already played an essential role determining the 2014 agenda; newly elected Republican senators ran on bipartisan legislation that she helped get through the House," said Chris Prandoni, director of energy and environment policy for Americans for Tax Reform. "Expect Maryam to build on that momentum now that she has willing and able partners in the Senate."

After a bit more than a year at Amoco, Brown returned to LSU, where she had received a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering, to obtain her law degree, according to her LinkedIn profile. She came to Washington, D.C., in 2004 as counsel to the House Energy and Commerce Committee and has held a variety of jobs on and off Capitol Hill since then, including as a manager of public policy for ConocoPhillips Co. and as chief counsel to E&C's Energy and Power Subcommittee, the position she held before joining Boehner's office in December 2012.

Mike Darner, executive director, Congressional Progressive Caucus

While Republicans are ascendant after claiming majorities on both sides of the Capitol, the last few election cycles have also left a leaner Democratic Party more heavily influenced by its liberal members.

To that end, the Progressive Caucus is expected to keep pushing Democrats to be aggressive in opposing Republican policies they see as damaging to the environment and putting forward aggressive proposals to fight climate change and achieve other long-standing goals. Darner will be a key player in those efforts.

"Mike Darner is the kind of staffer every congressional office wishes for: incredible work ethic, unwavering principles, constant innovation, and unlimited legislative and floor savvy," said Michael Shank, a former Democratic congressional aide who is now an adjunct professor at George Mason University. "With Darner at the helm, the caucus is poised, more than ever before, to make an unprecedented footprint in the D.C. political space."

Darner has been executive director at the CPC since February. Before that, he spent six years in the office of Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), first as a legislative counsel and then as legislative director. Before that, he was a staff attorney at the Center for Competitive Politics and held several legal internships at the House Judiciary Committee, American Civil Liberties Union, Center for American Progress and Freedom Forum, according to his LinkedIn profile.

Darner graduated from Miami University with a bachelor's degree in political science and received his law degree from the Catholic University of America Columbus School of Law.

Meghan Conklin, Democratic staff director, Natural Resources Committee

A seasoned environmental policy hand, Conklin has years of experience on and off Capitol Hill. Now she'll serve as the Democratic staff director to Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), the incoming ranking member on the House Natural Resources Committee and co-chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

Conklin's portfolio will include public lands, water and forestry issues. She'll work closely with Grijalva as he seeks to find areas of compromise with the panel's incoming Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah). Grijalva announced Conklin's appointment Tuesday, praising her "experience, expertise and dedication" to environmental issues (Greenwire, Dec. 9).

"Few people in Washington match her understanding of the legislative process, knowledge of the executive branch and deep commitment to protecting our environment," Grijalva said.

Conklin currently serves as a senior aide on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Prior to that, Conklin was chief of staff to the Fish and Wildlife Service from 2010 to 2012 and an associate deputy secretary at Interior in 2009.

Before joining the Interior Department, the San Diego native worked on the House Natural Resources Committee from 2004 to 2009.

Sarah Schenning, legislative director to Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.)

Schenning became a key climate adviser to Van Hollen this month when the Maryland lawmaker replaced retiring Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) as the co-chairman of the Bicameral Task Force on Climate Change. The task force, which is co-chaired by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), was created in 2013 to counter Republican attacks on the Obama administration's climate change plan.

Schenning also serves as Van Hollen's point person for the House Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Caucus, and coordinates his work on Chesapeake Bay water issues. The University of Maryland graduate joined Van Hollen's office in 2006. Her wide-ranging portfolio also includes transportation and labor issues.

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