By Alexandra Jaffe and Laura Barron-Lopez - 02/13/14 01:45 PM EST
Sen. Mary Landrieu’s (D-La.) new powers as chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee could end up being a double-edged sword for her already-difficult reelection chances.
The Bayou Democrat took over the plum post on Wednesday evening, which could allow her to push legislation popular back home that boosts the oil industry, all while distancing herself from an unpopular President Obama.
Republicans like Louisiana GOP Chairman Roger Villere are already pledging to make her chairmanship a liability.
“For years she has donated to anti-energy Senators and helped keep Harry Reid and his anti-energy team in control of the Senate,” Villere said in a release to be issued Thursday. An early copy was provided to The Hill.
“She has consistently put special interests above what’s best for Louisiana’s energy economy,” added Villere, who called Landrieu’s chairmanship “the epitome of hypocrisy.”
Meanwhile, on the left, Landrieu risks tensions with green groups that had signaled a tentative cease-fire with the Democrat.
Billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer, who spent $8 million on the Virginia race for governor last year, showed a willingness to target Landrieu for her support of Keystone XL pipeline, putting her in a tough spot on an issue she may be pressured to move on as chairwoman.
Landrieu’s supporters see the chairmanship as concrete evidence of the benefits of her seniority. The chairmanship gives her more power to set the agenda on energy issues going forward, they say.
“There is a difference between casting a vote and setting policy for the nation, especially for a state like Louisiana that’s at the forefront of national gas discovery and production,” a Landrieu aide said.
Whether the chairmanship boosts or hinders Landrieu could determine which party holds the Senate.
Landrieu’s seat is a must-win for Republicans if they hope to with back the majority, and a poll out this week showed her neck-and-neck with her likely GOP opponent, Rep. Bill Cassidy (La.).
Industry experts expect Landrieu to pursue an ambitious agenda as chairman of the committee, especially with a critical ally, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), as her ranking member.
Landrieu has described the U.S. as having a “renaissance’” in energy, with domestic crude oil production surpassing imports for the first time in nearly 20 years.
She’s eager to play a major role in shaping new policies, but will face obvious challenges in getting anything done.
One of her top priorities has been a measure that would allow for increased oil and gas revenues from offshore development in the Gulf of Mexico to go to energy-producing coastal states like Louisiana.
Matt Lee-Ashley, a senior fellow at the liberal think tank Center for American Progress, thinks the senator will push the measure in her new post, but her efforts may not bear fruit before the election.
“I think she will push very hard to get something on revenue sharing through committee but it will be hard to get much further than that before November, given its immense price tag and the opposition it faces,” Lee-Ashley said.
Divides within the GOP over lifting a decades-old crude oil export ban means Landrieu may be unable to move legislation on that issue either, he said.
It could also be difficult to move forward because of differences among Democrats. Landrieu will have to contend with liberal committee members like Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.).
The Landrieu aide pushed back at that suggestion, however, arguing that Republicans are to blame for any inaction.
“If Republicans want to make this an unproductive Congress that's their choice but that's not going to stop Sen. Landrieu from staying focused on Louisiana and fighting to pass flood insurance relief, building the Keystone pipeline and increasing domestic energy production,” the aide said.
Oil industry leaders say their patience with Landrieu is running out and that her chairmanship ups the ante for her to deliver.
“She still has substantial support within the oil and gas industry, but she’s been given 17 years. Some of her previous supporters are looking at this and saying, we think Cassidy could do a better job,” said Ragan Dickens, communications director of Louisiana Oil & Gas Association.
“Now that she is in this driver’s seat the industry does want to see some action,” he added.
While the Louisiana Oil and Gas itself is nonpartisan, its president, Don Briggs, hosted a fundraiser for Cassidy.
Still, Louisiana political observers say she shouldn’t shy away from the power the post gives her.
J. Bennett Johnston Jr., a former Louisiana Democratic senator who held the same post when he was in office, said his advice has been to tout her position frequently on the campaign trail.
“I would tell her — and I have told her, and she is doing it on her own — to tell the truth about the power of the committee,” he said. “Just talk about what the jurisdiction is, what she can do for the state in the position.”
He added that he doesn’t believe the Republican arguments of hypocrisy will hold any water with the energy industry there.
“There’s no chink in that armor. You can’t get Mary Landrieu on being anything but pro-energy, and I think that will come across in Louisiana, especially as she leads the Energy Committee,” he said.
But Bernie Pinsonat, a prominent state pollster who has clients from both parties, warned that may still not be enough in a state that’s moving away from Democrats.
“Energy may be a positive, but the question is, is it enough? Will it be enough to divert Louisiana voters’ attention, or will enough voters think this is more important than her vote for ObamaCare?” he said.