Salazar seat on spending panel, Chu nod leave Bennet in running for Ed

Wednesday’s news that U.S. Rep. John Salazar has won a seat on the powerful House Appropriations Committee and Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Chu is the Obama administration’s pick to head the Department of Energy narrows the possibility Colorado will be sending anyone into the next cabinet. Don’t count Coloradans out, however, as the unfolding Illinois governor scandal might dislodge a Chicago schools superintendent from contention as education secretary, smoothing the way for Denver Superintendent Michael Bennet’s nomination.

Bennet’sname has moved into second place on the Associated Press ranking of potential Department of Education secretaries, behind veteran leader Arne Duncan, who is CEO of the Chicago public schools. Bennet also surged into second place as the “Arne-alternative spot” on the Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s influential Flypaper blog daily tracking poll of “education insiders.”

Bennet’s chances are helped by the sullied reputation of Chicago pols — perhaps unfairly tarnishing Duncan, but scandal paints with a broad brush. Flypaper observes:

Though Arne Duncan still leads our poll, the Illinois governor’s troubles may have sullied the Windy City, hurting Chicago Public Schools chief Arne Duncan’s chances of becoming the next education secretary. President-elect Obama is distancing himself from the Gov. Rod Blagojevich controversy, so maybe he will keep it no-drama-Obama and look to Bennet after all.

In the last week, Salazar’s star has risen through the roof as a potential secretary of agriculture, but his ascension to the Appropriations Committee likely means he’s out of the running for an Obama cabinet post. Salazar isn’t complaining, however. “I guess if President-elect Obama would ask me to serve, I would talk to him,” Salazar said in a conference call Thursday reported by the Rocky Mountain News. “But this appointment makes it very difficult for me to leave Congress and the district I love so much.”

Salazar will be the first Colorado representative on the panel since former 2nd District Rep. David Skaggs was a member more than a decade ago. He replaces New Mexico Democratic Rep. Tom Udall, who was elected to the Senate, as the lone voice from the Rocky Mountain West on the panel, which directs federal spending. The seat carries the potential for tremendous power for Salazar and his 3rd Congressional District, which makes it a natural the Manassa potato farmer might want to stay awhile and build seniority. “I plan to be here as long as the people of the 3rd will continue to have me,” Salazar said in the call.

The committee appointment pours oil on the roiling waters stirred up by rumors Salazar might be creating a vacancy in the 3rd District. Republicans and Democrats alike have been jockeying for position and dusting off long dormant special-election rule books in the two weeks since Salazar’s name first surfaced as a contender for the USDA pick.

The designation of Chu — who shared a 1997 Nobel Prize in Physics for developing methods to cool and trap atoms with lasers — to be secretary of energy derails speculation that Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter had a bead on the slot. Currently the director of the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Chu is a longstanding advocate for alternative energy sources and has argued for technological solutions to climate change. Ritter, who can claim credit for passing on the phrase “new energy economy” to Obama during the Democratic National Convention, was mentioned as a possibly Energy chief in a Washington Post blog entry that also listed Chu, among a host of politicians and business leaders.

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Ernest Luning

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