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Senate Committee Votes Out FERC Nominees; White House Deal Disputed

Both of President Obama's nominees to FERC were voted out of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee in an often contentious meeting Wednesday, but a White House agreement that some members said would allow current Acting Chairman Cheryl LaFleur to remain at the helm until next year has not been finalized, according to ranking member Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK).

In the end, the committee approved the nomination of Norman Bay, current director of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission's Office of Enforcement (OE) by a 13-9 vote and LaFleur by a 21-1 vote. The two nominations now go to the full Senate for confirmation. Obama has said he will designate Bay as FERC chairman upon his confirmation.

There had been rumors of behind-closed-doors negotiations on the nominations in the days leading up to the committee vote (see Daily GPIJune 11), and some Democratic members said the White House had told them Obama's designation would delay Bay's move to chairman until next spring. According to Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV), there would be "a nine-month time period that Cheryl LaFleur will stay, but she will be the chairman in full, with full privileges of a chairmanship. That gives Mr. Bay, who's a good man, a chance to get the experience needed on that commission, as far as with regulatory experience."

"That is correct," said Chairman Mary Landrieu (D-LA).

But Murkowski said she has received no such assurance from the White House.

"We all know that we have been trying to work out an accommodation, and I believe we are very close. I believe we are very close, but what I haven't received is the assurance from the White House that Cheryl LaFleur will stay as chair of the Commission," Murkowski said.

In November, Obama tapped LaFleur to be acting chairman following the departure of Jon Wellinghoff (see Daily GPI, Nov. 21, 2013). Prognosticators had seen LaFleur as a possible successor to Wellinghoff, but Obama instead nominated Bay to the Commission and to be designated chairman upon appointment by the Senate (see Daily GPI, Jan. 31). LaFleur's current term is due to expire at the end of June.

Bay's nomination has been criticized in some quarters because he had no energy industry experience before going to OE in 2009 (see Daily GPI, May 20; March 27). LaFleur has the backing of senators from both sides of the aisle representing New England states (see Daily GPI, April 2).

Murkowski made it clear Wednesday that she would prefer LaFleur be FERC chairman.

"While I might not agree with her on all aspects of the issues, I think that she has been fair, I think that she has the temperament and the judgement that she has demonstrated over not only the past five years as commissioner, but in her more recent role as acting chairman of the Commission. It's one thing to be a commissioner, it's another thing to be the chairman of the FERC. It's another thing to set that agenda; it's another thing to lead the policy in these areas. And so I want to make sure that whoever is chairing the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission knows their stuff."

She's willing to give Bay "the benefit of the doubt" and voted to place him on the Commission, Murkowski said, but she doesn't think he should be chairman.

"I do understand that he's a smart man, and that smart people can learn the ropes, if you will. But I'm not interested in the chairman of the FERC being somebody that is doing on the job training, particularly when we have a woman -- the only woman on the Commission -- who has been at the helm as the acting head of this commission, and by all reports, from Democrats and Republicans alike, she has been doing a good job," Murkowski said.

If Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) has his way, Bay will be the next FERC chairman. Reid has reportedly been instrumental in the collapse of some of Obama's previous FERC nominations (see Daily GPI, Oct. 9, 2013; Sept. 17, 2013) and has said he won't accept LaFleur in that position. "I don't want her as chair," he said, according to a recent Wall Street Journal report. Bay is more likely to promote Nevada's renewable-energy industry, according to the report.

Bernard Sanders (I-VT) cast the lone vote against LaFleur's nomination, saying he thought she was qualified, but he wants Bay to become chairman.

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