Stephanie Grace: Landrieu’s week gets mixed reviews

You could say U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu had a big week.

Landrieu chaired her first hearing as the new head of the Senate’s Energy Committee, an assignment that plays to many of her strengths as a candidate for re-election this fall. It’s a direct result of her longevity in Washington, a world in which influence and power often track seniority. It’s a tangible signal to voters that she’s focused not just on the state but on a vital local industry. And it’s a stage from which she can relentlessly demonstrate that focus.

And the senator made the most of it. She chose as the theme a push to export natural gas and turn the U.S. into “an energy superpower.” And she highlighted an unexpected gift from around the globe, a spot on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s short list of American officials barred from visiting his country.

“Being sanctioned by President Putin is a badge of honor for me and the people I represent,” Landrieu said. “And it has only encouraged me to redouble my efforts to increase domestic energy production here in the United States and make the U.S. a global leader in energy exports.

The hearing came days after Landrieu announced that “trusted Louisiana natives” would staff the committee and “focus efforts to support America’s working coast.”

Yet if this is a triumphant moment for the senator, the same can be said of partisan rivals who want to make sure her third term is her last and her hard-earned chairmanship short-lived. As it happens, one of her first assignments as energy chair was to oversee confirmation of Rhea Suh, nominated by President Barack Obama to be the Interior Department’s assistant secretary for Fish, Wildlife and Parks, and the target of GOP critics who point to her 2007 assertion that rampant natural gas development “is easily the single greatest threat to the ecological integrity of the West.”

Landrieu said she’d been assured that Suh is not hostile to the industry and cited, among other things, supportive comments by the head of Ducks Unlimited.

Yet the tally broke down strictly along party lines, with Landrieu joining 11 fellow Democrats in support and all 10 Republicans against. Before and after the vote, her enemies pounced.

U.S. Sen. David Vitter’s office sent out a copy of a Wall Street Journal editorial arguing that “Ms. Suh has made no commitments on drilling or endangered species as part of her confirmation hearing, which means she could do a lot of damage in the final two years of this Administration.”

U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise issued his own email, asking: “What good is the gavel of a powerful Senate committee if it is used to harm Louisiana’s energy industry by approving a nominee who proudly tries to destroy oil and gas jobs?”

The Republican National Committee’s headline was simply, “Landrieu Chooses Obama Over Louisiana Energy.”

So much for the celebration.

It’s worth pointing out here that Landrieu’s critics don’t just come from the right. Her advocacy for the Keystone XL pipeline has prompted concern from the left as well, something that she contends only helps her back home.

The larger takeaway is that, even as Landrieu ascends the ladder, her political landscape remains largely unchanged.

She’s an increasingly big deal in Congress, yet she’s a Democrat in a state dominated by conservative voters. She often breaks with her party, but then again, she often doesn’t.

She plans to take her powerful committee in a new, more industry-friendly direction. She will make environmentalists squirm, even if they resist direct criticism for fear of weakening her so much that they send the Senate into even less-friendly hands. Yet she will be accused of not doing enough.

She’s never been better positioned to play offense, yet she will still frequently find herself on the defensive.

In other words, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Stephanie Grace can be contacted at sgrace@theadvocate.com. Read her blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/gracenotes.