Lawmakers in the U.S. Senate on Tuesday gave overwhelming support for Acting Chairman Cheryl LaFleur to serve as a FERC commissioner. Norman Bay squeaked by and could take over either now or later as chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, despite fierce opposition from Republicans.

The Senate voted 90-7 in favor of LaFleur’s appointment to FERC, shortly after Bay also won a commissioner’s post by a 52-45 vote. Although LaFleur has served as acting chairman since last November — following the departure of Jon Wellinghoff — President Obama has promised to designate Bay as FERC chairman after he is confirmed (see Daily GPI, June 18; Nov. 21, 2013).

But when that takeover would occur still was not clear. Prior to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee confirmation vote last month, Chairman Mary Landrieu (D-LA) said she had struck a deal with Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), a strong Bay supporter, to delay Bay’s takeover as FERC chairman for nine months, allowing LaFleur to continue her interim role. That deal appeared to be the prod to get the nominations out of committee, and is expected to prevail.

But Republicans, including ranking committee member Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), claims such an agreement was never finalized. Given the uncertainty, the seating arrangement of commissioners for the next FERC regular meeting, scheduled for Thursday, promises to be interesting.

The nomination of Bay, who has held the post of director of enforcement and led some high powered investigations of traders, has rankled Republicans, who allege that he isn’t qualified to be a commissioner.

“I find it shameful that this administration would seek to displace a well-qualified woman in favor of a male nominee with less experience,” Sen. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) said Tuesday. “More importantly and of the utmost concern to my home state, there are factors that lead us to believe that Mr. Bay would reliably serve as a rubber stamp for this administration’s extreme anti-coal agenda.”

Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY), chairman and ranking member of the Senate Subcommittee of Public Lands and Forests, concurred.

“I don’t often agree with Ms. LaFleur’s policies, but you cannot deny that she is qualified to serve,” Barrasso said Monday. “Let’s be clear what President Obama is asking the Senate to do. [He] is asking the Senate to demote Cheryl LaFleur, demote her from being chairman. She is a highly qualified woman, a Democrat with over 25 years of experience in energy, four years of experience as a commissioner of FERC — in order to promote an unqualified man.

“Why should the Senate do this? Well [Reid] put it this way in the Wall Street Journal: He said, ‘I don’t want her as chair…she has done some stuff to do away with some of [Chairman] Wellinghoff’s stuff.’ In short, the President and [Reid] want a rubber stamp. By all indications, they will get that with Mr. Bay.”

Industry and environmental groups showed support for both appointments on Tuesday.

“The natural gas pipeline industry looks forward to working with commissioners LaFleur and Bay to ensure the approval of the pipeline infrastructure needed to transport abundant, clean-burning domestic natural gas,” said Don Santa, CEO of the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America (INGAA). “INGAA has always enjoyed a strong working relationship with FERC, and the natural gas pipeline industry intends to do its part to ensure that America reaches its energy potential — while creating jobs and economic prosperity — by continuing to serve as the indispensable link between natural gas producers and consumers.”

In a blog post, John Moore, an attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, offered congratulations to both LaFleur and Bay. Moore also said Bay would take the top post at FERC in April 2015.

“With both nominees now confirmed, the Commission can continue to work on what is a very full plate of energy challenges,” Moore said, adding that those challenges include the evolution of power markets, the siting of natural gas pipelines and working with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on final rules governing carbon pollution from power plants.

“FERC should be able to tackle all of these challenges more smoothly with five commissioners on board, although the next nine months will remain a transition period as Bay waits to assume the chairmanship from LaFleur next April.