What might normally be above criticism in conventional Louisiana politics -- acting to protect refinery jobs in the state in response to a request from an oil company -- has turned into a double-edged sword for Democrat Mary Landrieu in her campaign for re-election to the U.S. Senate.
The reason is that the move short-circuited Senate approval of a bipartisan bill to impose sanctions on Venezuelan government officials for violent crackdowns on pro-democracy protesters of the government of President Nicolas Maduro, the successor to the late Hugo Chavez.
After Politico, a Washington, D.C. news outlet focusing on politics, published a report based on emails last week showing Landrieu raised objections to the bill, her leading Republican challengers -- U.S. Rep. Bill Cassidy, of Baton Rouge, and retired Air Force officer Rob Maness -- opened fire on her for protecting evildoers.
Landrieu's office said she does not want to kill the bill: She just wants it to include explicit language ensuring that it won't affect processing of Venezuelan crude oil at the Lake Charles refinery owned by Citgo, an oil company controlled by the Venezuelan government. Her insistence on that -- and the failure to add that provision to the measure at the 11th hour, before the Senate broke for recess last week -- sidelined the proposal.
Landrieu's objection alone was enough to block the bill because its principal Senate sponsors -- Democrat Bob Menendez, of New Jersey, and Republican Marco Rubio, of Florida -- sought to fast-track it by a procedure known as unanimous consent. The House had passed sanctions legislation by voice vote in May.
The Politico report cited Senate committee emails suggesting Landrieu's concerns were overblown. It also pointed out that Citgo had hired as lobbyists the firms of Squire Patton Boggs, which has given $75,000 in donations to Landrieu, and Cornerstone Government Affairs.
Landrieu released a letter from a Citco company executive in which he expressed fears that the sanctions could cut off the import of about 425,000 barrels of crude oil from Venezuela to the Lake Charles refinery and lead to layoffs among the refinery’s 1,100 employees and 862 contractors.
“Once a simple sentence is added to the bill that protects these 2,000 workers that make it possible for everyone who owns a car in Louisiana to fill up their gas tanks each week, I will be happy to support the legislation,” Landrieu said in statement from her office.
The Senate returns from its break the week after Labor Day.
But wait-and-see does not appeal to Maness.
“We have a moral obligation to use every available resource in our arsenal to hold the Maduro regime accountable for its extensive human rights violations against the justified and peaceful protests from the Venezuelan people,” he said in a statement from his campaign. “As people of Venezuela are making a push for democracy and overcoming oppression, Sen. Mary Landrieu is using Louisiana’s energy workers as a pawn to justify siding with the special interest influence who fill her campaign coffers. It’s downright shameful.”
The Republican mayor of Sulphur, near the refinery, reportedly defended Landrieu's decision.
The Citgo Lake Charles Manufacturing Complex is the sixth-largest refining facility owned by the U.S. subsidiary of Venezuelan state oil company, Petróleos de Venezuela. The Lake Charles facility, along with Citgo refineries in Illinois and Texas, are for sale.
The sanctions legislation was the culmination of months of efforts to punish the Maduro government. The Obama administration last week pulled the visas of 24 Venezuelan officials, thereby preventing them from entering the country.
Landrieu, Cassidy and Maness will all appear on the Senate ballot Nov. 4, along with whoever else files to run for the office by the Aug. 22 deadline. If no candidate captures of majority of the Nov. 4 vote, the top two finishers will meet in a runoff Dec. 6.