Senate’s Gulf State Democrats Diverge on BP

Posted June 21, 2010 at 6:24pm

Sens. Mary Landrieu and Bill Nelson have taken starkly different approaches to the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and the divergent views of the chamber’s two Gulf Coast Democrats illustrate the difficult task Senate leaders face if they choose to push climate change legislation this year.

For Landrieu, the massive Deepwater Horizon spill off Louisiana’s coast has drawn a hawkish response on oil drilling and total opposition to cap-and-trade. She has repeatedly called on President Barack Obama to lift his six-month moratorium on deepwater drilling, which she has called “ill-conceived and arbitrary.”

“I want to say unequivocally and with support of the vast majority of people in my state and throughout the Gulf — six months is too long,” Landrieu said in a floor speech last week. “The deepwater industry cannot survive in the Gulf with a six-month pause.”

Nelson, meanwhile, has declared expanded offshore drilling dead on arrival. The Floridian hailed Obama’s moratorium and has pushed for the Senate to increase the amount of money oil companies are responsible to pay out in the event of a spill. He has sponsored legislation lifting the cap with New Jersey Democratic Sens. Bob Menendez and Frank Lautenberg — a measure that Landrieu so far has opposed.

The differing views come as Democratic leaders try to corral their fractured caucus behind some kind of climate change proposal that could hit the Senate floor next month. When Members emerged from a special caucus meeting last week, during which they were presented three separate climate and energy proposals, they offered varied reactions that gave no hint the party is ready to move in any one direction.

Democratic negotiators, including Sens. John Kerry (Mass.) and Joe Lieberman, the Connecticut Independent who caucuses with the Democrats, are counting on both Landrieu and Nelson to ultimately vote in favor of an energy bill, should one make it to the floor. Winning the support of both will be a delicate balance, and so far neither Gulf Coast Member has given any hint of compromise on the key sticking points. But then again, few Members have.

“If you don’t give people direction, they’re going to scatter to their corners and stay there,” one senior Democratic aide said.

Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska), who also hails from an oil-rich state, maintained that consensus is still possible between Landrieu’s and Nelson’s views.

“What you’re seeing going on down there is an either/or; it’s either we want it or we don’t want it,” he said. “If you cut through both of them, really there’s a middle ground here, which I’m constantly looking for.”

While the oil business fuels Louisiana’s economy, tourism is Florida’s main business. The $65 billion industry is largely held up by the Sunshine State’s beaches, and so as Landrieu seeks to preserve the industry that fuels her state’s economy, Nelson is also looking out for his state’s business interests.

“For Sen. Nelson, there is a personal belief that no reason justifies drilling,” Nelson spokesman Dan McLaughlin said.

Nelson briefly filibustered legislation to expand drilling in 2006 and only relented after negotiating a wider buffer zone to protect his state. He and Landrieu were at odds during the entire debate, which behind closed doors infuriated the Louisiana lawmaker.

Similar tensions were on display last week after Democrats emerged from the special caucus meeting to discuss a path forward on energy reform. Speaking to reporters after the private session, Landrieu said legislation should “focus on the people” affected by the oil industry, “not just the wildlife and the marsh grasses.”

Landrieu has succeeded by reminding the public of the hardships coastal Louisianans endured in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. She won a third term in 2008 in part by touting her work funneling appropriations dollars to the state for hurricane recovery, and that message is likely to continue as Louisianans feel the economic crunch from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

Aides predict that energy legislation could include revenue sharing for oil drilling states to attract Landrieu’s support, while Nelson’s coastal concerns would also be addressed along with reform drilling guidelines for the oil industry. But pursuing such a politically volatile issue in an election year could prompt Democrats instead to pursue a smaller-scale bill that caps carbon emissions, which some Senators suggest has a better chance of passing.

“There are about 50 Senators who want to vote for a strong, comprehensive energy bill that puts a price on carbon pollution,” Lieberman said Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “There are about 30 who are set against it, and there are 20 undecided. You’ve got to get to 60 to pass anything in the Senate. We need half of the undecided and we can do it.”

A bipartisan group of Senators, including Nelson, will travel to the White House on Wednesday to further discuss energy reform legislation with Obama. Aides hope the president will give specifics on what should be included in a Senate bill, which Democratic Members will discuss Thursday in another caucus meeting.