Tom Stieghorst
Tom Stieghorst

It's been a pretty quiet two years for the cruise industry in Washington, D.C. But that could change if the U.S. Senate once again switches leadership in the fall elections.

Recall that Sen. Jay Rockefeller tormented the industry from his perch as chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee until he retired prior to the 2014 election. Rockefeller held hearings on everything from crime on cruise ships to the favorable tax treatment of cruise line income.

When he left, and the Senate leadership turned Republican, Sen. John Thune of South Dakota became the chairman of the Commerce Committee. His interest in transportation tilted toward freight rail reform and aviation security.

But Thune could be back in the minority again in November should Republicans surrender the Senate and a new Democratic leadership takes charge.

Ten weeks from the election, there's no consensus about which side will prevail, but there is a sense that the numbers don't favor the Republicans.

That's because of the 34 seats up for grabs, 24 of them are now held by Republicans. One respected election observer, The Cook Report, currently ranks seven seats as toss-ups, including the one held by Marco Rubio, the Florida Republican who chairs the Commerce sub-committee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries and the Coast Guard.

Another non-partisan pundit, University of Virginia professor Larry Sabato, ranks four seats as toss-ups, and puts Rubio's race into the "leaning Republican" column.

The current balance in the Senate is 54 Republicans, 44 Democrats and two Independents who vote with the Democrats, meaning that a net four-seat swing would put the Democrats in charge.

Thune's Democratic counterpart on the Commerce Committee is Bill Nelson, Florida's other senator. Nelson has twice shown an interest recently in the cruise industry. He berated Royal Caribbean International for its weather forecasting after the Anthem of the Seas ran into a wicked storm in February.

Nelson also showed some concern in 2013 in the plight of an elderly passenger who was disembarked from an Azamara Club Cruises ship in Turkey with a medical condition, and stranded because of an insurance mix up.

Would Nelson hold hearings on cruise industry issues, as Rockefeller did? It's hard to say, but as one of the more moderate Democrats Nelson's approach would not likely be as unforgiving as Rockefeller's seemed to be.

And of course there's no guarantee that current committee assignments would hold in a new Senate, one in which Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada will no longer be in leadership.

So the cruise industry has a lot to watch for come Nov. 8.

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