Could Obama nominees be swapped?

Lawmakers on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee are discussing ways they might strike a deal with the administration to swap its nominees for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which oversees the nation's electric grid. 

Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), the panel's chairwoman, said Tuesday that she is working on negotiating a possible swap between the president's nod to head the commission, Norman Bay, and its current acting chairwoman Cheryl LaFleur. Both are Democratic nominees.

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"There is an ongoing negotiation and nothing has been decided, but I am really keeping my eye on the ball, which is getting us a good compliment of FERC commissioners that can do the job and do it well," Landrieu told The Hill.

Both have been nominated by President Obama: Bay to sit as chairman of FERC, and LaFleur to return as a commissioner. Bay is Obama's second nominee to head the nation's top energy regulator, after his first bowed out after being painted as anti-coal and biased against fossil-fuels.

Bay has encountered skepticism himself from Republicans, and a few Democrats on the committee. Those hesitant to confirm his nomination say his history as director of FERC's enforcement wing isn't ideal, and that he has never sat as a commissioner.

"I have always questioned why the administration would push LaFLeur out of the position. She has done a good job," Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), ranking member on the committee, told reporters. "If we can get a commitment that LaFleur stays as the chair then I am more amenable to other situations."

Essentially, Republicans, and Democrats who favor LaFluer, would agree to confirm both nominees if the White House states it would follow through on a deal to make LaFleur the chairman of FERC, and have Bay serve as a commissioner.

When Obama first sent the nominees to the committee, Murkwoski noted, Bay was not designated as a nominee to be chairman. It was a nod simply to be on FERC.

"Sen. Landrieu and I are trying to figure out if there is a way that the most qualified individual on the commission will be chair," Murkwoski said. "We are in the mist of those discussions now."

A vote on the two nominees was expected this week, but has been pushed back. Landrieu said she expects committee action on the nominations next week.

A recent report in the Wall Street Journal said past FERC nominees were squashed by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), and that once again he was the reason LaFleur was passed up to head the regulatory commissions for Bay.

"I don't want her as chair," Reid told the Wall Street Journal.

When asked if Reid could pose a barrier to a possible deal, Murkowski said she is hopeful there would be a way to "overcome" him.

"He has one vote, obviously a very influential one," she said. "I would think that he too would want to have not only a functioning FERC, but a well functioning FERC."

Landrieu said: "There is no condition that Reid would have to approve [a deal]" if one were made.

But she added that Reid and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) are "very powerful with both caucuses."

"Chairman have a great latitude and I'm going to do the very best I can, but Sens. Reid and McConnell have a lot of power," Landrieu said.

Murkowski and others skeptical of Bay say his lack of experience on energy policy at a time when the country is in a transition is troublesome.

Specifically, opponents of the Environmental Protection Agency's latest standards limiting carbon dioxide emissions from power plants want be sure that whoever leads FERC is able to ensure it stands strong in keeping those regulations in check.

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) has expressed concern with Murkowski about the pressure the new rules will put on the utilities and electric grid reliability, which FERC is tasked with overseeing. The past winter also put a stress on FERC, which is keeping an eye on low natural gas reserves.

"This is not some obscure little commission where we don't pay attention to who is sitting on it and who is heading it," Murkowski said. "There is some very big decisions that will be before FERC, some big things to weigh and evaluate, and we need to have competent folks doing it."