For Sen. Landrieu, fight with Obama White House might pay off in 2014

If Sen. Mary Landrieu has irked the White House by blocking the nomination of a key economic adviser, the Louisiana Democrat likely only stands to gain in another corner: her home state.

Although she isn’t up for reelection until 2014, the centrist senator has positioned herself as someone willing to buck her party in the name of homegrown interests.

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The latest example is her hold on Jacob Lew, the administration’s nominee to succeed Peter Orszag as Office of Management and Budget (OMB) director. Landrieu has pledged to block his nomination until the administration either lifts or eases the temporary ban on deepwater offshore drilling.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs has called her hold “sad” and “outrageous.” But observers in the Bayou State say Landrieu is simply playing smart politics.

Robert Hogan, an associate professor at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, said the drilling moratorium is “something that resonates with voters here.”

“This state has trended Republican in recent years, and we have a very popular Republican governor who has been a constant thorn in the side of the administration,” he said. “This moratorium is something he’s trumpeted all over the place. So the public here has been very primed to this issue by the actions of the governor. I think Landrieu is in a very precarious situation. She needs to be able to point to things where she has stood up to the administration, and this is certainly something she can point to where she has.”

Brian Brox, assistant professor of political science at Tulane University, said “people appreciate that she’s going to bat for the economy of south Louisiana.”

“The [Democratic] criticism that she is stalling the administration does not really resonate with Louisiana voters,” he said. They are much more worried about jobs that are potentially being lost. They’re not worried about process.”

Brox said the state is more focused on immediate concerns, like its economy.

“Keep in mind, what is the alternative?” Brox said. “Of course there’s environmental coastal erosion, sediment coming down the Mississippi, inadequate federal levees, all of that. Of course people here are concerned about environmental issues. But a lot more people are concerned about a loss of jobs.”

Landrieu is doing what most senators do — playing to her home base, especially since the state has been trending steadily Republican. There are 2.9 million registered voters in Louisiana, with nearly 1.5 million, or just over half, registered as Democrats and only 26 percent identifying as Republicans.

But that is a far higher percentage than in recent years, and given the midterm enthusiasm for out-of-power voters, Landrieu can likely well expect a reelection challenge if and when she runs again in four years.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Landrieu’s state has elected a Republican governor, Bobby Jindal, and is expected to reelect conservative GOP Sen. David Vitter, even despite his connection to a prostitution scandal a few years ago.

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Landrieu — who was one of the final holdouts on the healthcare bill — gave a fiery speech on the Senate floor last week to defend her hold on Lew, which is based on her opposition to the administration-imposed drilling moratorium in the Gulf of Mexico. Without a lifting or rollback of the moratorium, Landrieu said, the federal budget office will stay without a leader.

“My hold on Mr. Lew’s nomination will remain for the same reason it was placed originally: the administration has not acted to lift its ill-conceived moratoria on offshore drilling that are having such a devastating impact on working people and small businesses throughout the Gulf Coast,” Landrieu said.

While many in the Gulf Coast want to see stronger safety standards, she said, “we have been able to demonstrate that the oil and gas industry can improve safety progressively over time, without a complete work stoppage.”

Landrieu said administration officials are unreasonably insisting that complete standards be attained “until every single offshore operation is in compliance with 100 percent of the revised rules, which aren’t even final. That is an unworkable framework and an unreasonable standard.”

Landrieu told The Hill last week that her stance against the president of her own party isn’t about politics — it’s about the economy.

“If we have an airplane crash in this country, it’s based on pragmatics — we want to investigate what went wrong, and improve the system for the future,” she said. “Why is oil drilling any different? I know the [OMB] position is important. But my hold will stay, for now.”