Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, has said repeatedly that he thinks President Barack Obama is wrong about a host of policies, whether on oil drilling, the military or the environment. Begich also has made it perfectly clear that he has no interest in having his fellow Democrat out to his home state, saying this year that he doesn’t “care to have him campaign for me.”
But that doesn’t mean he’s not looking for the president’s help. Begich has, in fact, submitted a long wish list to the Obama administration for agency decisions that he thinks would boost his reelection chances. Other Democrats have done so, too.
In New Hampshire, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen would like the administration to help expand access for state insurers to the new health-care law. In Louisiana, Sen. Mary Landrieu has lobbied for help to keep open a federal call center. In Montana, Sen. John Walsh is fighting a decision to privatize land that could be used for hunting and fishing.
In the post-earmark era, using the party’s control of the federal bureaucracy to deliver local projects or delay new regulations that might stifle jobs has become a critical part of Democratic efforts to maintain control of the Senate. In close races, particularly in less populated states such as Alaska and Montana, incumbents are hoping that a few favorable agency decisions might secure the backing of key constituencies.
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Sometimes, though, the requests set up a difficult dynamic for the administration, which must decide between helping vulnerable Democrats and going against broader goals. Many of Begich’s requests, for example, would allow for more oil drilling at the expense of disturbing environmentally sensitive areas.
In some cases, the senators get what they want; in others, not so much. Begich named four issues that the administration has delivered on for Alaska, including allowing snowmobiles in pristine locales and loosening environmental regulations on gasoline, but he can name several more that have not been resolved.
“You have to bang on their heads pretty hard,” he said in an interview. “It takes a constant education.”
Landrieu added of administration officials: “They’re sometimes good and sometimes not good.”
Administration officials stressed that decisions are made on merits, not political calculations. Lawmakers are advised on how to make strong cases to particular agencies, officials said, but the decisions are made through a complicated process aimed at preventing an overly politicized bureaucracy.
“These types of decisions are ultimately made on the merits,” said Eric Schultz, a White House spokesman. “Our legislative affairs staff work to keep lawmakers appropriately informed about agency-level decision-making, but the underlying determinations are based on substantive criteria and decided by respective policy specialists.”
Nevertheless, Democratic leaders, including Sen. Charles Schumer, N.Y., have reminded senior White House officials of the importance of some requests, senior congressional aides said. They want Democrats to at least be in position to claim credit if the agencies side with an embattled incumbent.
Landrieu scored a victory last week when the Department of Health and Human Services favored keeping open a call center run by General Dynamics in Bogalusa, La. More than 600 workers have been at the center helping people sign up for coverage under the new health-care law, with a contract set to expire April 25.
“They had some options to which ones the contractor could close. We said, ‘Heck, why close the one in Louisiana?’ ” Landrieu said of her lobbying effort.
On Wednesday, the call center was spared.
HHS officials said the decision was made by General Dynamics, with workers continuing to handle calls for those signing up on the exchange after the deadline for obtaining coverage. Fifteen other sites will remain open, but at largely reduced staff levels. White House officials noted that the decision came amid bipartisan requests from the state’s congressional delegation to keep the center open.
Landrieu remains at odds with the administration on another key local issue, the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed rule regulating wetlands under the Clean Water Act. Landrieu, the new chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, blasted the proposal to hinder oil-drilling capacity off her state’s coastal waters. She is working with Senate Republicans to block the measure.
Shaheen, a former governor, said she has seen this administration at its best and worst on handling her requests. In 2011 a budget standoff left a newly built federal prison in northern New Hampshire shuttered, without any of the more than projected 300 employees on the job. She kept working with the Federal Bureau of Prisons and eventually got a commitment for full funding, but hiring has lagged.
In early 2009, Shaheen began a five-year battle with the administration over a job center in Manchester for at-risk youths. The Labor Department delayed approval of building the center – meant to help 150 low-income youths a year enter the workforce – because of demands that unionized workers build it.
“There were a lot of challenges working with the Department of Labor,” Shaheen said.
The issue was resolved late last year and developers broke ground, but the job center will not open until the summer of 2015, long after the Granite State’s voters will have decided whether to reelect Shaheen.
The senator is also seeking help from HHS to alter standards for insurance companies to participate in her state’s exchange under the Affordable Care Act. Just one insurance company in New Hampshire participated and left some corners of the state with no health facilities inside ACA coverage. No decision is likely until late this year, congressional aides said.
No senator may be as dependent on the federal bureaucracy decisions as Begich, whose vast frontier state depends on dozens of agencies to regulate fisheries, oil production, tribes, national parks and environmentally sensitive areas.
Of late, his missives and statements have had a harsh tone. “Unlike the Office of the Secretary of Defense, I understand Alaska,” Begich wrote to the Armed Services Committee this week.
That was a bid by the senator to urge the Defense Department not to increase prices at military commissaries, which are a financial lifeline for the state’s 65,000 active-duty troops and 10,000 military retirees. It will play out over the next few months as Congress writes a budget for 2015.
The Alaskan’s tough reelection fight this fall is considered one of the most likely to determine which party holds the Senate majority next year, and he does not apologize for the fact that he is able to get meetings with the Democratic administration that his state’s traditionally Republican delegation might not have gotten otherwise.
Last year, Begich and his fellow Alaska senator, a Republican, could not get through to military officials to try to keep a squadron of F-16s stationed at Eielson Air Force Base in Fairbanks. So, in a rare move for a Democrat, he placed a hold on the nomination for a three-star general to get his fourth star. In October, the Air Force announced the jets were staying in Fairbanks, citing the Pentagon’s strategic pivot to Asian security matters as the reason for keeping the jets and the accompanying 2,400 airmen and civilian jobs there.
The biggest fights, however, come down to Alaska’s push for more energy production, which often runs up against the Obama administration’s liberal instincts to protect the environment. More often than not, the fights are between the Interior Department and local officials, as is the case with his effort to get more drilling and pipeline access in a petroleum reserve in the state.
He recently got a road approved through the ice-covered region, and in the third ad of his campaign, released in late March, Begich rides across the ice in a snowmobile and delivers this promise: “Next year, the oil starts flowing.”
At the same time, Begich can’t get the Interior Department to approve a road project connecting the remote town of King Cove to a nearby airport. It has been an issue for decades, one that the legendary Senator Ted Stevens, R, couldn’t get done, and if Begich could bring the administration over to his side, it would be a hero in Alaska.
Environmental groups have long opposed the project because it would go through environmentally sensitive regions, and it has become a very symbolic fight in their movement. In late March, Begich even brought town officials to his Washington office so they could urge Interior Secretary Sally Jewell to approve the project.
She’s standing by the agency decision, leaving the Democratic incumbent in a tougher position. The senator promises not to give up. As he put it in his TV ad, “Sooner or later, Washington will figure out that I don’t take no for an answer.”