Barrasso Nears Committee Decision; Lee Waits in the Wings

Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso is deciding whether to remain top Republican on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee or take that post on the Energy and Natural Resources panel. (Francis Chung/E&E News)
Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso is deciding whether to remain top Republican on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee or take that post on the Energy and Natural Resources panel. (Francis Chung/E&E News)

By Emma Dumain and Geof Koss, E&E Daily, E&E News

Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) signaled yesterday he isn’t ruling out sitting tight atop the Environment and Public Works Committee in the next Congress, a move that would allow Sen. Mike Lee to rise to the senior Republican spot on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

And that possibility isn’t sitting well with some public lands advocates, who fear the ascension of the deeply conservative, limited-government Utahan could upend the committee’s long tradition of bipartisanship and compromise.

Barrasso told E&E News yesterday that he’s “given thought” to whether to remain at the helm of Environment and Public Works or decamp to chair Energy and Natural Resources.

“I haven’t talked to the staffs of the committees yet. … I’ll do that, and with members, before making an announcement to the press,” he said.

The senator said part of his thinking was whether he would be chairman or ranking member of either committee.

Twin Jan. 5 runoffs in Georgia will determine which party controls the Senate. Democrats must win both contests to claim control, with Vice President-elect Kamala Harris breaking what would be a 50-50 split between the parties.

But Barrasso said he wouldn’t keep colleagues in suspense for that long. “We don’t know whether we’re going to be in the majority or the minority,” he said.

“We’re anticipating we’ll be in the majority, but there are still two elections in Georgia to be held in January. I’ll make a decision statement before that.”

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Barrasso has long been considered likely to assume the top GOP slot on Energy being vacated by current Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), in accordance with Senate Republican Conference term-limit rules.

But there’s been increasing chatter since the election that EPW’s jurisdiction on infrastructure may be more appealing to Barrasso with President-elect Joe Biden in the White House instead of Donald Trump.

For starters, Congress punted on the multiyear $287 billion highway bill that Barrasso pushed through EPW last year on a unanimous vote after Senate Republicans failed to agree on finding more than $100 billion to cover its cost.

And despite all of Trump’s vows to push a major infrastructure package, Biden has made clear he wants to go big on infrastructure early next year.

Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah). (Francis Chung/E&E News)
Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah). (Francis Chung/E&E News)

Lee rising

Should Barrasso decide to stay atop EPW, it would clear the way for Lee to replace Murkowski to serve alongside ranking member Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.).

Lee’s office declined to comment, but he’s next in line in seniority behind Sen. Jim Risch of Idaho, who plans to remain the top Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, a spokeswoman confirmed yesterday.

While Barrasso and Lee share many philosophical similarities as conservatives from Western states when it comes to federal control of public lands, Lee has a reputation at times for being a thorn in the committee’s side, despite being an active and engaged member.

Most recently, Lee emerged as a stumbling block in Murkowski and Manchin’s efforts to resurrect the panel’s bipartisan energy package before the end of the year, although Murkowski later said she had worked through Lee’s concerns (E&E Daily, Oct. 2).

Lee also sidelined an earlier incarnation of the energy package in 2016, forcing weeks of negotiations on paying for assistance to help residents of Flint, Mich., cope with lead-contaminated water supplies (E&E Daily, Feb. 29, 2016).

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Over the summer, Lee held up the Great American Outdoors Act to protest a closed amendment process, forcing lawmakers to come to the Senate floor in the middle of the night to cast a procedural vote. The blockbuster public lands package eventually passed both chambers and was signed into law.

And at the end of 2018, Lee joined with fellow conservative firebrand Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) on a quest for changes to another carefully negotiated massive bipartisan public lands bill, resulting in the legislation having to be pulled from the floor in the closing days of the 115th Congress (E&E Daily, Dec. 20, 2018). The package was ultimately enacted in early 2019.

‘I do hope it’s not Mike Lee’

Dan Feinman, the Conservation Lands Foundation’s director of government affairs, referred to Lee yesterday as someone “who has never seen a public lands bill he likes.”

Speaking during CLF’s postmortem on the 2020 election, Feinman said he wouldn’t speculate on the next Energy and Natural Resources chairman, “but I will say I do hope it’s not Mike Lee, because I do believe with Mr. Barrasso … we can at least have reasonable conversations about advancing public lands bills in partnership with Joe Manchin from West Virginia.”

Several Senate Democrats with vested interests in protecting public lands were noncommittal yesterday, at least publicly, on whether Lee or Barrasso would be a better advocate for their priorities.

Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), who is retiring but is on the short list to be Biden’s Interior secretary, said both Lee and Barrasso “very much understand public lands, Western issues, environmental and conservation issues, so I would think they would be very good at dealing with the issues in the committee and work in a bipartisan way.”

Udall would have dealings with either senator should he decamp to the Interior Department, as the committee has some jurisdiction over the agency.

Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), a member of the Senate Interior and Environment Appropriations Subcommittee, said Lee’s stance on public lands would be a “detriment,” but ultimately, “nobody is 100% like anybody else in this body, and … in the end, if he is willing to negotiate a compromise, that’s all I can ask for.”

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Reporters Jennifer Yachnin and George Cahlink contributed.


Reprinted from E&E Daily with the permission of E&E News. Copyright 2020. E&E News provides essential news for energy and environment professionals at