The apparent behind-the-scenes involvement of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., in the selection of President Obama's nominee to lead an obscure but powerful federal energy agency has heightened the drama in an already controversial confirmation process that begins in earnest on Tuesday.
The agency, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, is especially important to Reid's state, which relies on FERC to approve transmission systems for its growing renewable-energy sector. The nominee, Ron Binz, is reportedly close friends with outgoing FERC Chairman Jon Wellinghoff, who is from Nevada and is in turn close friends with Reid.
Binz, a former chair of the Colorado Public Utilities Commission, is expected to face a grueling confirmation battle Tuesday before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. In recent months, a public-relations war has broken out between Binz's detractors and backers. Opponents include the Wall Street Journal editorial page and conservative groups such as the American Energy Alliance and the Institute for Energy Research; supporters include left-leaning groups such as the California-based Green Tech Action Fund and VennSquared Communications, based in Washington.
FERC oversees interstate power transmission and oil and gas pipelines, as well as hydroelectricity projects. While it does not have a direct role in policymaking, it has become a proxy in the fight over Obama's climate-change agenda.
Binz is expected to face questioning about comments he's made on natural gas, calling it a "dead end," and about his role in developing a Colorado law that aimed to shut down coal-fired power plants and shift to natural gas instead. In particular, Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, who have not yet taken a public position on Binz, may well have concerns about his views on fossil fuels.
How Manchin and Landrieu ultimately vote on Binz will be key, but the senator who matters most in his confirmation process is Reid.
On Friday, National Journal Daily reported that Reid had persuaded the White House to drop its initial pick to head FERC, current Democratic Commissioner John Norris, in favor of Binz, citing an interview Norris did with the trade publication Transmission Hub.
"Reid's chief of staff informed me that Reid intervened with the White House to stop my appointment as chair because, as told to me by his chief of staff, I was "˜too pro-coal,' " Norris told Transmission Hub. Norris also told the publication that he believes his nomination was blocked because Reid wanted a FERC chairman from a Western state.
Kristen Orthman, spokeswoman for Reid's office, denied Norris's claims. "Unfortunately Commissioner Norris is wrongly blaming others and making accusations that are not accurate," Orthman said in an e-mail to National Journal Daily on Saturday.
But a Republican energy lobbyist, MWR Strategies President Mike McKenna, said Norris told him the story about his exchange with Reid's chief of staff six months ago. "Reid calling Norris a liar — and that is what he did — is completely outrageous," McKenna said. "Given that he [Norris] has a lot more to lose by speaking out than Harry Reid, there is no doubt in my mind that John is telling the truth."
Reid has a track record of supporting clean energy over fossil fuels, said his former spokesman Jim Manley.
"Senator Reid is very strong supporter of renewables, and a staunch opponent of coal, believing there is no such thing as clean coal," Manley said. "And so as part of that, he'll do what he can to protect individual nominees."
Nevada has a lot at stake with FERC, especially its handling of renewable-energy transmission, which is an issue Wellinghoff has prioritized as chairman. Nevada ranked second in the nation in net electricity generation from geothermal and solar energy, and 90 percent of its energy comes from out of the state, according to the Energy Information Administration.
Orthman, Reid's current spokeswoman, didn't comment on Reid's potential behind-the-scenes involvement in the confirmation process, but simply restated Reid's support for Binz.
"Senator Reid supports the president's nominee, who has strong bipartisan support from people who know FERC better than anyone," Orthman said, referring to a letter that former FERC commissioners wrote in support of Binz.
Adding to the scrutiny surrounding Reid's involvement is the fact that two former aides to the Senate majority leader are working with VennSquared Communications on Binz's nomination. Last week, The Washington Times reported on e-mails that revealed Chris Miller, who left the leader's office earlier this year as his top energy and environment aide, and former deputy staff director Kai Anderson have been helping prep Binz for the Senate confirmation process along with Michael Meehan, president and CEO of VennSquared.
In an interview, Meehan denied any coordination with Reid's office. Anderson and Miller opted not to comment for this story.
"I haven't talked to Senator Reid or anyone in his office on this topic," Meehan said. "I'm not aware that Reid called up Chris and Kai to help with this nomination, and certainly not me."
Reid's role in promoting Binz for the FERC post may never become clear, but it is not surprising to some who know Reid best. "He's an awfully Machiavellian character sometimes," Manley said.