Thinking they had a great political issue on their hands, Senate Democrats spent a lot of time the last couple of days trying to push a bill being offered by Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ), the DSCC chairman, which “would retroactively boost the legal cap of $75 million on how much companies must pay for economic damages,” according to the LA Times. In an obvious political ploy, the bill was titled the “Big Oil Bailout Prevention Act.” Since Democrats were clearly more interested in having a political issue than serious legislation, they didn’t hold hearings on the bill and instead have simply gone to the floor to ask unanimous consent to pass it so they could then accuse the GOP of protecting oil companies when Republicans objected to hastily passing such ill-considered legislation.
But yesterday, Menendez’ maneuvering was undermined by the Obama administration when Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar was asked at a hearing about what he thought of raising the liability caps. The Hill reports today, “The Obama administration broke away from Senate Democrats on Tuesday when it echoed a Republican argument against raising liability claims on oil companies. . . . Salazar told lawmakers that a drastic increase in liability could drive smaller oil-drilling companies out of business, echoing an argument Republicans have used. Salazar’s position is in contrast with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-Nev.), who told reporters Tuesday that he wanted to lift the cap on economic damages above $10 billion.”
In fact, The Hill notes, “Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) asked Salazar about the proposal to raise the liability ceiling to $10 billion at an Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing. Salazar declined to endorse the $10 billion figure, saying lawmakers should avoid setting a cap that would harm smaller companies. He called for working with Congress to arrive at a number that ‘makes sense’ and isn’t ‘arbitrary.’ ‘It is important that we be thoughtful relative to that, what that cap will be, because you don’t want only the BPs of the world essentially to be the ones that are involved in these efforts, that there are companies of lesser economic robustness,’ Salazar said.”
And Salazar wasn’t the only Democrat breaking ranks with Reid and Menendez. At the same hearing, Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA), who is from one of the states likely to be most affected by the oil spill, seemingly agreed with Republicans that the Menendez bill is a bad idea. She said to Salazar, “But the question of this liability issue going forward — I want to commend you for taking your time to decide on the right answer, because if we don’t do this correctly, we could put independent and smaller companies that employ 1.8 million people in this country at risk, if this issue isn’t handled correctly. So with all due respect to my colleague, who I have the utmost admiration for, Senator Menendez and others that are calling for unlimited liability, it will put out of reach the possibility for insurance, which is extremely important for this and any industry to have to operate. So it has to be done in the right way, and I thank you for taking your time on the details of that.”
As Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said yesterday, “Clearly, the most important thing everybody’s in agreement on is we want to try to stop this spill as rapidly as possible.” It’s also important to find out what went wrong, both with the companies involved and with the administration’s oversight and approval of drilling procedures. But none of those goals are served by Democrats trying to play political games that even the Obama administration’s Interior Secretary doesn’t support.