WASHINGTON (AP) - The Senate approved two nominees for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission on Tuesday under an unusual political deal in which a FERC staff member will eventually be promoted to lead the commission.
On separate votes, the Senate approved the nominations of Norman Bay and Cheryl LaFleur to serve on the five-member panel, which regulates interstate transmission of electricity, natural gas and oil.
Bay, of New Mexico, is currently director of FERC's enforcement office. LaFleur, of Massachusetts, has served on the panel since 2010 and has been acting chairwoman since November.
Bay's nomination was approved 52-45, while LaFleur was approved 90-7.
President Barack Obama nominated Bay as commission chairman in January, but lawmakers objected, saying he lacked the necessary experience. Under a deal with the White House, senators agreed that LaFleur will stay on acting chairwoman for nine months before Bay takes over as chairman early next year.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., was one of several Republicans who said Bay is not qualified to lead the commission.
"I fail to see what qualifies Mr. Bay to be the chairman of the commission, especially when the acting chair of FERC whom he would displace is much more qualified to hold the position," McConnell said.
Unlike most FERC commissioners in the past decade, Bay has never served as a state utility regulator and lacks the background in policy areas that FERC is charged with overseeing, McConnell said.
By contrast, LeFleur has more than 20 years' experience in the electric and natural gas industries and served in top roles at National Grid USA, a regional organization responsible for delivery of electricity to 3.4 million customers in the Northeast.
"I find it shameful that this administration would seek to displace a well-qualified woman in favor of a male nominee with less experience," McConnell said.
Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, the senior Republican on the Senate Energy Committee, also criticized Bay's credentials and said she was concerned that Bay would have to remove himself from at least 40 cases pending before the commission. Murkowski also faulted Bay for his leadership of the enforcement office, citing concerns about fairness and transparency.
"FERC is too important a commission. It's too important for appointments to be handled like this," Murkowski said, citing the agency's role in overseeing interstate natural gas and oil pipelines, as well as import and export terminals for liquefied natural gas.
Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., chairwoman of the Senate energy panel, said Bay had excellent credentials as director of the enforcement office for the past five years and as a former U.S. attorney for New Mexico. Two prominent Republicans, former New Mexico Sen. Pete Domenici - a former Energy Committee chairman - and New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez have endorsed Bay, Landrieu said.
Under the agreement with the White House, Bay will essentially "train" under LaFleur's leadership before taking over next year, Landrieu said.
White House spokesman Matt Lehrich called Bay a proven leader with expertise in the energy markets and "a tough, evenhanded approach to enforcing the law."
The White House appreciates LaFleur's service and looks forward to continuing to work with her, Lehrich said.