The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee agreed to send a pair of Federal Energy Regulatory Commission nominees to the Senate floor -- but there's a catch.
The panel voted to approve Cheryl LaFleur and Norman Bay as commissioners with the understanding that LaFleur, the acting chairwoman, would serve an additional nine months after confirmation atop the FERC. Following that, Bay, the White House nominee for chairman, would take over.
The arrangement is the result of two weeks of negotiations that involved committee Chairwoman Mary Landrieu, D-La., Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W. Va., Democratic leadership and the White House. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, the committee's ranking member, also was close to the talks.
Republicans and Manchin had concerns that Bay didn't have the experience to lead the commission. He heads its enforcement office, but has never been a commissioner. LaFleur, meanwhile, has served as acting chairwoman of the federal electric grid regulator since November, when her predecessor retired.
"I believe we've gotten the best of the situation to have consistent leadership at FERC with a woman who clearly enjoys broad bipartisan support, and honor the president's choice," Landrieu told reporters after the panel vote, which approved LaFleur 22-1 --Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., was the lone opposing vote -- and Bay 13-9, with Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., joining Democrats.
Murkowski, before the vote, voiced consternation about the deal Landrieu said she struck with the White House. She said she hadn't received an "assurance" from the Obama administration, which can choose to appoint Bay as chairman if both he and LaFleur clear the Senate as nominees for commissioner.
The White House, however, said it agreed to letting LaFleur stay on as chairwoman for nine months.
"Norman Bay is a proven leader and dedicated public servant with expertise in the energy markets, a tough, evenhanded approach to enforcing the law, and bipartisan support in the Senate. He will make an excellent chairman and we are pleased he is headed towards confirmation to serve in that role," spokesman Matt Lehrich said in an email to the Washington Examiner.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's participation in negotiations indicate he will move ahead with the confirmation process, even if it means Bay's ascent to chairman is delayed.
GOP lawmakers have criticized the Nevada Democrat's influence over the FERC process. Reid said he was a key reason the White House chose Bay over LaFleur, and insiders say Reid's fingerprints were on the White House's tapping of previous nominee Ron Binz, who withdrew in October, over John Norris, a FERC commissioner whose wife ran Obama's Iowa campaign.
Several Republicans have labeled the move as a demotion for LaFleur.
"She's been doing a good job. She has been fair, she has been balanced, she has that temperament that we need," Murkowski said.