Washington Watch: Louisiana in the line of falling dominoes

Let’s play a little game of dominoes, or maybe musical chairs is more apt, and determine how political moves involving Montana and China could impact Louisiana’s 2014 U.S. Senate election.

News broke last week that President Barack Obama is planning to appoint Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., as the new U.S. ambassador to China.

Baucus, a retiring senator who has served in the chamber since 1978, previously led U.S. efforts to get China into the World Trade Organization and to strengthen trade between the two nations.

The precise timing about the appointment of Baucus is unclear, but the first big hole that Baucus leaving would create is an open Senate seat to be filled temporarily by the discretion of Democratic Montana Gov. Steve Bullock.

Democratic Montana Lt. Gov. John Walsh is already running to replace Baucus and, if he is Bullock’s interim Senate pick, Walsh would have the campaign boost of the incumbency.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee is already calling the potential selection of Walsh the “Big Sky Buyoff.”

The other obvious hole Baucus is voiding is the chairmanship of the powerful Senate Finance Committee.

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., is considered the likely favorite in line for the position. The other top contender, Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., also is retiring and said he is content leading the Senate Commerce and Transportation Committee.

So, assuming Wyden gets the spot, he would vacate his leadership of the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

Who is in line to replace Wyden as chair of the energy committee? Why that’s Louisiana’s own, Sen. Mary Landrieu, who would be thrilled to swap that chair for her current seat leading the Senate Small Business Committee.

Landrieu, a Democrat, was hoping to win the energy chairwomanship if she won re-election next year. But, if everything proceeds as aforementioned, then Landrieu would already be the energy committee chair before her November election date.

She has been using the potential chairwomanship as part of her re-election campaign to promote how influential she would be with energy policy, the oil-and-gas industry, and the fight to bring in more revenue sharing for Louisiana and other states that have offshore energy production.

“This election gives me an opportunity to really talk about how important Louisiana having that energy gavel is,” Landrieu said late Tuesday, one day before the news about Baucus broke.

Landrieu and her top opponent, U.S. Rep. Bill Cassidy, R-Baton Rouge, also are fighting for the same fundraising dollars from the energy sector.

If Landrieu gets that gavel, she would have much more control over passing her Fixing America’s Inequity with Revenues Act. The FAIR Act would speed up increased revenue sharing for offshore energy production for Gulf Coast states to 2013 from 2017 and phase out a $500 million cap on annual state revenues shared among five Gulf Coast states.

Landrieu previously led the successful legislation that brings more revenue-sharing dollars to Louisiana starting in 2017.

But the FAIR Act is a different matter and, while it has collected some cosponsors, it has not made any legislative movement yet.

She likely would be able to get her bill passed out of committee, but getting approval by the full Senate and then the House is a much more challenging matter, especially when the legislation lacks support from the White House largely because the bill is projected to cost the federal government $6 billion over 10 years by giving more revenue to states.

Cassidy likely will argue that defeating Landrieu could give Senate control over to the GOP, which is typically friendlier to the energy sector, and create more long-term benefits for Louisiana. While Landrieu might be one of the Democrats who allies with the energy sector, Republicans will continue to contend that she is out of line with Louisiana conservatism on most other issues, especially health care.

So, in continuing to mix the comparisons, let the dominoes fall and let’s see who’s left standing without a chair.

Jordan Blum is chief of The Advocate Washington bureau. His email address is jblum@theadvocate.com.