Will Senate Energy Panel Veer Right?

WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 25: U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) speaks while flanked by U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) during a news conference on Capitol Hill September 25, 2013 in Washington, DC. The bipartisan group of Senators announced new legislation for comprehensive surveillance reform.  (National Journal)

Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., a staunch ally of oil and natural gas companies, may soon take the chairmanship of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

White House plans to tap Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., as the next ambassador to China will knock over leadership dominoes that could pull the energy panel rightward.

The current Energy chairman, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., is widely believed to covet the powerful Finance Committee gavel when Baucus — who was not seeking Senate reelection next year anyway — steps aside.

That could leave Landrieu on deck to chair the Energy Committee, which has oversight over an array of oil-and-gas drilling, energy-research, and conservation matters.

Landrieu would get the chance to push pro-drilling bills and advance a top priority: legislation that expands the amount of federal offshore oil-and-gas royalty payments given to Gulf Coast states.

That plan, which she crafted with Energy Committee ranking member Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, would also authorize offshore royalty-sharing with Alaska and with other coastal states if drilling is ever allowed in federal waters off their shores.

More broadly, the Landrieu-Murkowski pairing would put two oil-state senators atop the panel as the industry pushes to make more federal lands and waters available for drilling, and battles administration plans to expand regulation of oil and gas "fracking," among other goals.

"The senators have a good relationship, and that would obviously continue if Senator Landrieu's position on the committee was elevated. However, this is all just speculation at the moment," said Robert Dillon, a spokesman for Murkowski.

Getting the gavel could also boost Landrieu's reelection campaign. Already, she was seen as Wyden's heir to the chairmanship in the next Congress if she won her own 2014 reelection race.

But now, with the chance for the gavel sooner than expected, she could reap political rewards ahead of the 2014 election.

"If Landrieu becomes Energy chair in 2014, it will help her campaign since its more effective to say that she IS chair than she WILL be chair," said one energy expert in an email exchange.

Having Landrieu atop the panel would also make the Energy Committee among the more conservative in the upper chamber.

Committee member Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., is also often conservative on energy policy and has for years alleged that White House policies are an assault on his home state's coal industry.

To be sure, all the leadership shuffling remains hypothetical for the moment.

"Senator Wyden looks forward to Senator Baucus' comments on his future plans and will not comment further at this time," Wyden's committee spokesman said.

But here's how the dominoes might fall:

Landrieu is the third-most senior Democrat on the panel after Wyden and Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D.

But Johnson is also not seeking reelection next year, and he already chairs the powerful Banking Committee, so he's seen as unlikely to want the Energy Committee gavel, especially on such an interim basis.

Similarly, retiring Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., would be next in line behind Baucus on Finance, but he indicated to reporters Wednesday that he's not interested in a cameo role atop Finance.

While Landrieu was already seen as next in line for the Energy Committee chairmanship before the Baucus-to-China news surfaced, her ascendancy would have been dependent on Democrats holding the Senate in 2014, which is hardly a sure thing.

Now, if Baucus is confirmed as ambassador, Landrieu would likely get some time as chairwoman regardless of what happens in next November's elections.

President Obama's reported decision to tap Baucus as ambassador to China arrives the same day that Baucus floated a sweeping plan to overhaul energy-tax policy — a long-shot proposal that now looks even less likely to advance.