US Senate committee deadlocks on Robinson

Republican questions Framingham rep's desire to lower electricity costs


A US SENATE COMMITTEE split evenly along party lines on whether to advance Massachusetts Rep. Maria Robinson’s nomination for a federal energy job, teeing up another situation in which Democrats may need to turn to the vice president to break a tie and muscle through a Bay State elected official.

Nearly two months after Sen. Joe Manchin delayed the original vote to avoid risking defeat, the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources voted 10-10 on President Joe Biden’s selection of Robinson to serve as assistant secretary of energy in the Office of Electricity.

Democrats control Congress and the White House, so the deadlock does not doom Robinson’s bid to depart Beacon Hill, but the process will now be more complicated and require additional procedural votes.

All 10 Democrats on the panel were physically present on Tuesday — unlike the March 8 meeting, when Sen. Bernie Sanders used a proxy and left his party without the numbers they needed to overcome potential Republican opposition — and voted in Robinson’s favor.

“I believe she will bring valuable experience and perspective to the Office of Electricity, and I urge my colleagues to support her nomination,” Manchin said.

The committee’s 10 Republicans all dissented, including some who voted by proxy.

Republican Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming, the Energy Committee’s ranking minority member, said Robinson’s policies “demonstrated little regard for electric reliability and affordability.”

“This nominee has publicly praised abandoning the backbone of our nation’s electricity system: America’s abundant coal, oil and natural gas resources, and she is in favor of intermittent, unreliable and unaffordable renewable energy,” Barrasso said, largely repeating comments he made at the committee’s March hearing.

Barrasso referenced an article The New York Times published Tuesday about soaring electric rates.

“Massachusetts has the fifth-highest electricity rates in the country, 72 percent higher than the national average. I asked Representative Robinson if she believes the people of Massachusetts pay too much for electricity. Her answer? No,” Barrasso said. “Fifth-highest in the country, New York Times article, highest electricity rates, people suffering around the country — apparently they’re not paying enough yet in Massachusetts, according to Rep. Robinson.”

In a brief statement Tuesday, Robinson, whose nomination dates back to September 2021, said she is “looking forward to the next steps in the process.”

The decision now falls to US Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, who can move to discharge Robinson’s nomination from committee and bring it up for a full Senate confirmation vote. That move likely would not take place until a later date.

The US Senate plans a recess in August, and nominations reset if the Senate recesses for more than 30 days, so Schumer and top Democrats could face growing pressure to act over the next three months.

Robinson is not the first Massachusetts Democrat selected by Biden for a federal role to run into Republican opposition. In September 2021, the Senate Judiciary Committee deadlocked 11-11 on the nomination of then-Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins as U.S. attorney for Massachusetts as Republicans criticized her reform-minded prosecutorial approach.

Just more than two months later, the full U.S. Senate voted to bring Rollins’s nomination forward. The Senate split 50-50 on whether to confirm Rollins, and Vice President Kamala Harris cast the tiebreaking vote.

Harris could again be called into action to push Robinson through if the unanimous Republican opposition at the committee level translates to the full Senate.

In the meantime, Robinson will remain in the Massachusetts House, which is in arguably its busiest stretch of the two-year session ahead of the traditional July 31 deadline to wrap up formal lawmaking business.

Her resignation would open up a sixth vacancy in the 160-member chamber, where Democrat leaders have chosen against calling mid-term special elections several months before a fall general election season that will feature newly redrawn and in some cases dramatically different district lines.

House Speaker Ron Mariano said in February that he was wary of asking voters to cast ballots in a special election using the existing, decade-old districts and then head back to the polls when the new maps are in place.

According to U.S. Census Bureau data, the five currently vacant districts are home to roughly 220,000 Massachusetts residents — more than the population of Worcester, the state’s second-largest city — and Robinson’s departure would push the total to nearly 265,000.

Those Bay Staters are poised to have no elected representation in one of the state’s two legislative bodies until January, a span in which lawmakers are weighing action to reform election laws, rein in greenhouse gas emissions and legalize gambling on sports, as well as an annual budget that they often use as a vehicle to steer earmarks to their communities.

Four other Democrats have resigned House seats this year: Rep. Claire Cronin of Easton, who stepped down January 19 to become US ambassador to Ireland; Rep. Lori Ehrlich of Marblehead, who left on Januar\. 31 for a role as Federal Emergency Management Agency Region 1 administrator; Rep. Carolyn Dykema of Holliston, who departed February 11 to become northeast policy director at solar energy company Nexamp; and Rep. Tom Golden of Lowell, who quit April 27 to take over as his hometown’s city manager. Republican Rep. Sheila Harrington of Groton also resigned February 16 when she was approved as Gardner District Court clerk magistrate.

Legislative leaders called two special elections for seats held by lawmakers who resigned in 2021 — Rep. Brad Hill of Ipswich, who joined the Massachusetts Gaming Commission, and Sen. Joe Boncore of Winthrop, who became president of the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council.

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Chris Lisinski

Reporter, State House News Service
The departures have also left holes in the House leadership structure. Cronin served as majority leader, Golden was one of four division leaders, Dykema co-chaired the Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture Committee, and Ehrlich co-chaired the Municipalities and Regional Government Committee.

Mariano had not named successors to any of those four positions as of Tuesday.