Senate Democrats Face Environmental Showdown on Energy Committee

There’s a possibility Sen. Joe Manchin could be the next Energy and Natural Resources ranking member, and environmentalists are gearing up for a fight.

Sen. Joe Manchin and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer
AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster
Nov. 25, 2018, 8 p.m.

Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer may soon have to pick his poison—an environmental insurrection or a trashing of seniority rules that distances Sen. Joe Manchin even further from his colleagues.

That dilemma is far from certain. But as the next Congress approaches, a personnel shake-up in Senate Democratic committee ranks is gearing up to potentially give Manchin seniority on the panel where he’s most out of step with his Democratic colleagues.

Sen. Maria Cantwell, the no-nonsense political tactician who now leads Energy and Natural Resources Democrats, could very likely head to the Commerce Committee to take the ranking member slot there following Sen. Bill Nelson’s razor-thin loss to Florida Gov. Rick Scott.

Nelson is now the top Democrat on that committee, which is traditionally regarded as more influential than the energy panel. His looming departure leaves that slot open, with Cantwell next in line for seniority.

Her Energy Committee departure would spark a scramble for a replacement. And next in the line of succession among Democrats who don’t have ranking member spots elsewhere is Manchin.

Now environmentalists, who routinely fight with Manchin over coal and other energy policy, are firing off warning shots to Democratic leadership.

“There is no one more dangerous and less qualified to serve as ranking member,” Lukas Ross, a senior policy analyst at Friends of the Earth, told National Journal. “Schumer should be put on notice.”

A spokesman for the senior senator from coal-behemoth West Virginia didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Manchin has a lifetime score of 45 percent from the League of Conservation Voters, a group that spent more than $28 million on House and Senate candidates in the 2018 election cycle. The group had planned to spend roughly $60 million nationwide.

That rating ranks worst among sitting Democrats. Electoral losses for Democratic Sens. Heidi Heitkamp and Joe Donnelly will mean no Senate Democrat is within 25 points of that rating in the next Congress.

The week before Thanksgiving recess, environmental groups stormed the offices of influential House Democrats, including likely Speaker Nancy Pelosi and incoming Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Frank Pallone, to demand lawmakers refuse fossil-fuel contributions and ramp up action on climate change. Environmentalists are now suggesting they could replicate those protests on the Senate side.

Progressive groups have already lashed out at Schumer for allowing Manchin to retain a post in Democratic leadership. Manchin, a fiercely independent but longtime Democrat, is vice chair of the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee.

Manchin edged out West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey on Nov. 6, helping to soften the blow for Senate Democrats. Republicans are likely to pick up two seats in the upper chamber, barring an extraordinary upset in a Mississippi runoff election on Tuesday.

But Manchin incensed the Democratic base by voting in favor of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh in October. He was the only Democrat to do so. Shortly before the election, Manchin also bucked party lines by saying a change in the policy of birthright citizenship is “worthy of looking at.”

Cantwell, who represents Washington state, hasn’t spoken publicly about her plans. But the Commerce Committee offers the senator an opportunity to address a wide range of critical state industries, like telecommunications, aviation, and fisheries.

Several other Democrats would also need to refuse the post before Manchin emerges as the most-senior Democrat on Energy and Natural Resources. Sen. Ron Wyden is next up behind Cantwell. His seat atop the Democratic ranks of the powerful trade and tax-writing Finance Committee makes him an unlikely replacement.

Then comes Sen. Bernie Sanders. He leads Democrats on the largely ineffectual Budget Committee. Still, that panel gives the liberal firebrand and potential 2020 presidential contender a platform to craft and publicize policies on tax and entitlement programs and other national issues.

And the one remaining Democrat in the line of succession before Manchin is Sen. Debbie Stabenow, the ranking member on the Agriculture Committee.

“Senator Stabenow is committed to continuing to serve as ranking member of the Senate Ag Committee,” a Stabenow spokeswoman told National Journal.

Stabenow is now working to button up a 2018 farm bill, and those negotiations are nearing a close, according to reports. The Stabenow spokeswoman didn’t respond to a request for comment about whether completing a farm bill would change her calculus.

Even the possibility that Manchin could take the Democratic reins of the energy committee as ranking member is putting environmentalists on the offensive.

“This is the guy who shot the cap-and-trade bill with a rifle. I think that speaks for itself,” Jamie Henn, program director at, told National Journal in a statement, referring to a campaign ad in which Manchin demonstrated his opposition to the 2009 carbon-emissions bill. “If Schumer lets Manchin take over the committee, he's going to face an all-out rebellion from the climate community and young people, who are rallying like wild around this Green New Deal vision."

Manchin was one of only two Democrats to vote for the confirmation of now-disgraced former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, and the West Virginia Democrat has sided with Republicans often on environmental and energy policy.

At an Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing the week before Thanksgiving recess, Manchin praised a nominee for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, Bernard McNamee, who is linked with Trump administration plans to prop up struggling coal and nuclear plants, and who is generally lambasted by Democrats.

“I’m probably the only one on my side who appreciates where you’re coming from,” Manchin, a supporter of the coal and nuclear bailout, told McNamee. “[Higher prices for coal] have been driven by all the regulations. It’s driven a lot of the coal-fired plants out of operation. We’re in a conundrum here.”

A spokesman for Schumer didn’t respond to repeated requests for comment. The timing for a re-jiggering of committee assignments is so far unclear.

The seniority rules for Democrats are informal, but largely respected, according to the Congressional Research Service. The nonpartisan U.S. Senate website points to only a few particularly egregious examples of seniority circumvention.

“The Senate briefly ignored seniority when its Democratic caucus removed Stephen Douglas as chairman of the significant Committee on Territories because he did not reflect the party's views on slavery,” the website says. “This departure from tradition—along with the 1871 removal of Charles Sumner as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee for opposing an annexation treaty favored by the president—created hard feelings within the Chamber and banner headlines in papers across the nation.”

Ross, the Friends of the Earth policy analyst, said Energy and Natural Resources warrants a flouting of the rules.

“If seniority means putting one of the biggest defenders of the fossil-fuel industry in the position of leadership, then obviously seniority needs to be reconsidered,” he said.

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