President Barack Obama's decision to tap Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., as ambassador to China is a political boon for Democrats trying to protect their vulnerable majority, but especially for Sen. Mary L. Landrieu of Louisiana.
In the game of gavel dominoes that would be set off by Baucus vacating his chairmanship of the Finance Committee, Landrieu would likely ascend to the top of the Energy Committee, which could serve as a valuable tool in her tough 2014 re-election bid. The Louisiana Democrat, who often speaks of drilling issues on the Senate floor, would be in a position to team up with the panel's top Republican, Lisa Murkowski of oil-rich Alaska, on various issues important to her state.
The committee shakeup was a hot topic of conversation when Baucus announced his retirement in April, but now there's an added wrinkle and the Montana Democrat's early departure could factor into 2014 politics. With gulf drilling issues key to voters back in Louisiana, the impact of Landrieu taking the energy panel's gavel would be intensified.
Her newfound power could prove even more important if Republican Sen. David Vitter follows through on his flirtation with a gubernatorial bid, leaving the state with the prospect of having two freshmen senators.
Landrieu would not comment on the potential committee changes Thursday; neither would Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., the current Energy Committee chairman and the likely candidate to replace Baucus on Finance.
But back in April, CQ Roll Call's Lauren Gardner surveyed Louisiana-based political analysts about the importance of the position to Landrieu's campaign:
“That would be huge,” said Clancy DuBos, a Louisiana political analyst and columnist. It has been more than 20 years ago since Democrat J. Bennett Johnston — whom Landrieu replaced in the Senate — chaired the Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
DuBos said Landrieu has consistently worked to secure support from Republican oil interests in her state. Energy-related political action committees contributed $196,800 to Landrieu — more than any other interest group — in the last election cycle, according to PoliticalMoneyLine. And the Center for Responsive Politics reports that employees and political action committees affiliated with the New Orleans-based utility Entergy Corp. were Landrieu’s top overall contributors since 2007.
The possibility of an Energy chairmanship could make those donors even more enthusiastic — and could help her critics at home forget about the health care and background check votes.
“I think people in Louisiana might be willing to forgive a lot,” DuBos said.
Retiring Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., who technically has first dibs on the Finance gavel, said Thursday he was not interested in the job.
"If I did, I'd only be there for a year, which is really probably a half a year," Rockefeller said, noting that he has already announced plans to retire after his current term expires.
"I'm completely and 100 percent happy at the Commerce Committee where we have ... fantastic staff. They'll all stay, and we're doing really interesting things," Rockefeller said. "The Finance Committee is always on the cusp of doing interesting things, but never manages to."
"It was mine if I wanted it," he said of the Finance gavel, adding that he has already turned it down.
New York Sen. Charles E. Schumer, the Senate's No. 3 Democrat, has seniority on Finance, but still ranks behind Wyden. Leapfrogging the Oregon Democrat on the committee, contrary to some reports, would be unprecedented and highly unlikely, even if Wall Street would prefer a New York lawmaker at the helm.