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Republicans Block Effort to Raise Oil Spill Liability Cap

Updated: 1:21 p.m.

Senate Democrats again met GOP opposition in their attempt Tuesday to increase oil companies’ liability for oil spill cleanup and damages.

Democrats sought to paint Republicans as supporting oil companies over consumers after Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) objected on the floor to passing legislation raising the liability cap to $10 billion.

“Taxpayers shouldn’t be the one holding the bag at the end of the day,” Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) said at a press conference afterward. “To me, this is really just an issue of fairness. If an oil company causes a spill, they ought to pay for it.”

Likewise, Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) said, “If you’re reckless with your behavior, you pay for it.”

Inhofe said on the floor that he was unsure what the liability cap should be, a question he noted was also being considered by President Barack Obama, who has stayed mum on the debate.

“I don’t very often agree with President Obama. Right now he is unsure what that level should be, I’m unsure what that level should be,” Inhofe said. “Maybe it should be the level we’re talking about right now, and it may end up there, we don’t know that.”

Current law holds oil companies responsible for $75 million in damages following an oil spill. In the wake of the massive Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, Democrats have sought to increase that to $10 billion. Republicans charge that rather than raising the liability cap to a specified number, oil companies should be forced to pay out a percentage based on their annual profit margin.

A GOP leadership aide also dismissed the efforts as “political theater” and said the Democratic move “illustrates exactly why Americans can’t wait to vote them out this fall.”

Whether Democrats can win approval of the measure remains unclear. Republicans have twice blocked it from going to the floor, and with less than two weeks remaining in this work period, time may run out. Democrats may try to tack the measure on to the upcoming tax extenders package that is slated to come up before the Memorial Day break, but the strategy remains unclear as the majority scrambles to respond to the issue that has taken center stage for environmental activists.

For now, Democrats appear to be pushing an argument similar to the one used during financial regulatory reform, when they sought to paint Republicans as supporting Wall Street over small businesses and shaming them into supporting the bill.

“This is really about whose side do you stand on? Do you stand up with the taxpayers or with multibillion-dollar oil companies?” Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) said.

Majority Leader Harry Reid went further.

“The fundamental principle behind the Wall Street bill we’ll finish this week is accountability,” the Nevada Democrat said. “When it comes to the ongoing catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico, our motivation is no different: We have to put our foot down and make clear that taxpayers will not pick up the tab.”

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