Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is doing everything he can to help Louisiana’s Mary Landrieu.
He arranged the chamber’s floor agenda this week so Landrieu could lead debate on a flood insurance rate reprieve for homeowners in her hurricane-prone state.
He is set to promote her to be chairman of the Senate energy committee, where Landrieu can mind her state’s oil and gas interests.
And when Landrieu grabbed headlines in November by introducing legislation to stop the cancellation of health policies under Obamacare, Reid didn’t push back.
Why all the fuss? Landrieu, 58, is one of Reid’s most vulnerable incumbents in this year’s midterm elections and he’s using his power to see that every one of them wins in November so Democrats can maintain control of the U.S. Senate.
“There’s hardly a leadership meeting that goes by that that question isn’t raised: How will this impact the 2014 class?” Senator Dick Durbin, the chamber’s No. 2 Democrat, said in an interview at the Capitol yesterday.
“And when it comes to Mary, I really am just a great fan,” Durbin continued. “She comes from a tough political state, but she is just tenacious, she doesn’t back down.”
Republicans need a net gain of six seats to take the chamber’s majority. They’re likely to win three open seats, and are targeting four incumbents in states that President Barack Obama lost in 2012: Landrieu, Mark Begich of Alaska, Mark Pryor of Arkansas and Kay Hagan of North Carolina.
Reid’s maneuvering may not work. Former Senator Blanche Lincoln, a Democrat, wasn’t able to parlay her rise to Agriculture Committee chairman into enough support in her rural home state of Arkansas to hold her seat in 2010.
Democrats decide chairmen by seniority, so Landrieu’s elevation amounts to good timing. The fact that she’s taking the post is remarkable because she has been an opponent of the White House drive to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. She also supports the $5.4 billion Keystone XL pipeline, a project that has outraged the party’s environmental wing.
The energy committee’s top Republican, Lisa Murkowski, hails from another oil and gas producing state, Alaska. That may improve chances for bipartisan alliances on industry priorities such as expanded exports of natural gas sought by Cheniere Energy Inc. (LNG:US) and Dominion Resources Inc. (D:US)
Landrieu, who’s never won more than 52 percent of the vote and is being attacked back home for her support for the 2010 health-care law, is seizing the opportunities Reid has given her. Yesterday she took to the Senate floor to call for speedy action on the bill to stall skyrocketing flood insurance rates.
“If we don’t fix this, the premiums coming into the program will be less and less, people will be defaulting on homes, banks and communities will take a downward economic spiral and the program itself will collapse,” she said.
Reid also spoke for the legislation, urging a vote as early as this week on the measure that protects about 5.5 million coastal-state homeowners nationwide from insurance rate increases. About 500,000 of them are in Louisiana.
“We have heard constantly, persistently, always from Senator Landrieu indicating how important this is to her state and to our country,” Reid said today on the Senate floor.
Landrieu, who is expected to face Republican Representative Bill Cassidy this fall in her race for a fourth term, is trying to distance herself from Obama, who remains unpopular in Louisiana. In the 2012 presidential election, he received 41 percent of the vote in the state.
“Any good leader, he and his team are going to spend a lot of time looking for opportunities for her to elevate her profile and positions on the Senate floor in the year to come,” said Jim Manley, a former top aide to Reid. “Just because you’re chairman doesn’t mean that you’re always going to get your way, but it’s an awful good perch to be looking out for your constituents.”
Landrieu had a 46 percent positive rating and a 51 percent negative rating in a Nov. 6-12 poll of 600 likely Louisiana voters by Southern Media and Opinion Research Inc. Her positive rating dropped 10 percentage points from last spring, after the messy rollout of the Affordable Care Act’s insurance exchanges.
Taking over the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee gives Landrieu a chance to support home-state energy producers and refiners, and reap campaign donations.
Louisiana is ranked seventh among U.S. oil producing states, behind Texas, North Dakota, California, Alaska, Oklahoma and New Mexico, according to the Energy Information Administration. That doesn’t count oil produced in the Gulf of Mexico’s federal waters.
Oil and gas industry donors have given her a fundraising edge over Cassidy. The industry has donated $393,500 so far to Landrieu, compared with $144,250 for Cassidy, according to the latest data tracked by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics in Washington. She raised a total of $8.1 million through Sept. 30, while Cassidy collected $4.1 million.
The committee chairmanship will further her oil-industry fundraising edge, though the chances of advancing major energy measures will be limited, said Jennifer Duffy, Senate editor of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.
“She’s got the money from anybody doing business in Louisiana, but now you’ll see other interests getting in,” she said.
The Senate Majority PAC, a super-political action committee founded by former Reid chief of staff Susan McCue, in December aired a television ad in Louisiana accusing Cassidy of being “part of the problem in Washington.”
Landrieu has long used her seat on the Energy panel to help her state. She co-authored a 2006 law that gave Louisiana a share of the oil and gas revenue from drilling in the Gulf of Mexico.
Erik Milito, director of upstream operations at the American Petroleum Institute, said producers of liquefied natural gas, or LNG, are set to benefit from Landrieu’s accession to chairman. Of 23 LNG applications filed with the Energy Department, at least eight are for facilities in Louisiana or offshore near its coast.
“Landrieu has been on board with LNG exports,” Milito said in a Dec. 20 call with reporters. “Louisiana is one of those states that stands to gain a lot from LNG exports.”
The musical chairs among Senate committee chairmen stems from Obama’s nomination of Democratic Senator Max Baucus of Montana to be U.S. ambassador to China. That is expected to elevate the current energy panel chairman, Democratic Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, to replace Baucus as head of the Senate Finance Committee.
Landrieu, the third-ranking Democrat on the energy committee, is eligible for the post because Tim Johnson of South Dakota decided to keep his chairmanship of the Banking Committee.
“She knows and understands those issues,” former Senator Lincoln said in an interview on Capitol Hill last week. “Back home, people know Mary.”
Cassidy is centering his campaign on attacking Landrieu’s support of the health-care law. One recent campaign ad showed footage of Landrieu walking with Obama and cast her as a “rubber stamp” by emphasizing her vote against a non-binding resolution to stop cancellation of health insurance policies because of Obamacare.
As Republican criticism of the botched Obamacare rollout grew last fall, Landrieu started playing defense. She introduced her proposal to allow individuals to keep their policies as long as they stay up-to-date on payments.
While the measure hasn’t advanced in the Senate, it’s given Landrieu a shield to use against critics who say Obama misled the public in 2012 when he said Americans who liked their health care plans could keep them under the new law.
Cassidy said in an interview that while he doesn’t have the tools available to him that Landrieu will as a panel chairman, he’ll be able to tout some home-state accomplishments as a House Republican.
And he said he expects some help from House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, with measures on flood insurance, coastal restoration and other issues.
The temporary relief from flood insurance premium increases in this week’s $1.1 trillion spending bill originated as a floor amendment Cassidy once offered.
In the end, Reid’s help won’t allow Landrieu to win the election, Cassidy said, even though he’s going to try to give her issues important to Louisiana voters.
“Let’s not be naive, he’s going to do everything he can to help her disguise the fact that she supports the president’s agenda 99 percent of the time,” Cassidy said.
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