POLITICS: PennAve

Senators discussing deal to nix Obama's FERC nominee

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Senate lawmakers are discussing a deal that would in effect subvert President Obama's pick to lead the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission by instead making acting Chairwoman Cheryl LaFleur the official commission head.

Senators close to the process say they are exploring a move that would make Norman Bay, Obama's nominee for the post who has strong backing from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., a commissioner while leaving LaFleur as chairwoman. A Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee confirmation vote on both Bay and LaFleur was expected this week, but has been postponed given the current negotiations.

The main concern from the Republican and Democratic lawmakers close to the discussion is that Bay, who currently leads the FERC's enforcement office, has never served as a commissioner. LaFleur, on the other hand, has already been on the job several months since her predecessor, Jon Wellinghoff, retired.

"I have always questioned why the administration would push LaFleur out of the position I think she has done a good job in, and if we can get a commitment that LaFleur stays as the chair then I'm more amenable to other situations," Energy and Natural Resources ranking member Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, told reporters Tuesday in the Capitol, adding that she is talking to committee Chairwoman Mary Landrieu, D-La., about the issue.

The FERC is an independent regulatory body that oversees the electric grid and weighs in on policies regarding wholesale electricity markets, pipeline permitting, power market manipulation and electric grid reliability, among other things. Its activities have become a focus for coal-state Democrats and Republicans who have expressed concern about the role Environmental Protection Agency regulations might have on providing reliable electricity as older, dirtier coal-fired power plants come offline.

But it's still "too early" to tell whether any deal could permanently place LaFleur atop the commission, Murkowski said. Obama still can name the chairman once all commissioners get Senate approval, and that selection wouldn't need to go back to the Senate for confirmation.

Swapping LaFleur for Bay would be an affront to Reid, who has wielded considerable influence over the FERC process. He was long a backer of Wellinghoff, who emphasized wholesale electricity market changes that incentivized transmission upgrades to facilitate clean-energy infrastructure pivotal to getting Nevada and other Western states off coal-fired power.

Energy industry insiders say Reid pushed the White House to overlook FERC Commissioner John Norris, whose wife ran Obama's re-election campaign in Iowa, and instead appoint former chief Colorado utility regulator Ron Binz, who withdrew from consideration in October. In comments to the Wall Street Journal published Monday, Reid said the White House didn't pick LaFleur following the Binz fallout, "Because I don't want her as chair."

Noting Reid's interest — and previous success — in the FERC nominee process, Murkowski said lawmakers seeking a LaFleur-led FERC could be facing an uphill battle.

"I would like to think there is a way to overcome that. He has one vote. Obviously a very influential one, albeit," she said, adding that LaFleur, "is also the president's nominee. This is not a holdover from the Bush administration."

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