By Lanny Keller
With five visits to parishes across the Gulf Coast, U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., indulged a well-deserved victory tour for passage of the bill dedicating oil spill fines to coastal restoration.
The state's senior senator was sending not only the official message that parishes and the state need to take advantage of fines from the BP disaster of 2010. She was also sending a political message about her viability as a candidate for re-election in 2014.
Landrieu was the original sponsor of the RESTORE Act, which dedicates 80 percent of the BP fines to the Gulf Coast area - not just Louisiana. By drawing in senators from other affected states and setting up a series of grant programs that could fund projects in other states, Landrieu built the political coalition across party lines in the Senate to make the act possible.
It was finally enacted as part of a larger highway bill, with bipartisan support in Congress and the support of the Louisiana delegation, of course. And if the pot is divided among affected states, so was the credit, as Landrieu generously praised colleagues in the delegation for their work in the House on the bill.
"Depending on the fine levied against BP in court or through a settlement, which could range anywhere from $5 billion to $20 billion, Louisiana will receive more of the funds than each of the other Gulf Coast states," Landrieu said. "Without the RESTORE Act, none of the Clean Water Act fines would have been allocated directly to Louisiana."
That if anything understates the achievement: In Congress today, even a few billion here or there becomes a political pot that could "offset" the cost of particular national priorities that the parties want to enact. In partisan battles, that money could have been part of disputes between the parties, and only scraps might have fallen to the Gulf Coast.
What the Landrieu victory lap underscores is her capacity to bring home the bacon, which for generations was considered the principal usefulness of Louisiana's U.S. senators. That productivity is helped by seniority, which is an important asset in both the House and Senate, but particularly the latter.
Landrieu is often considered politically vulnerable and in fact was first elected in 1996 in a very close election. Louisiana has trended Republican over her political career, although Landrieu received significant support from Republican elected officials in her victory over GOP state Treasurer John N. Kennedy in 2008.
At 56, she is young for a senator serving her third six-year term. And to quote her predecessor, J. Bennett Johnston, Louisiana benefits when voters "elect them young and keep them there."
Is that top-of-mind for voters anymore? Perhaps not, but there's a difference between a second-term senator seeking a third term, and a third-term senator seeking a fourth. A big difference.
Landrieu is 34th in seniority among the 100 senators and would benefit from any significant turnover coming as others retire or are defeated. Senate turnover has been higher because of the last three hotly contested congressional elections. It's a generational transition for the Senate.
All this may mean little to voters directly. But Landrieu is not going to hide her accomplishments under a bushel in seeking a new term, and one political asset is potential influence for the state that her seniority might bring.