WASHINGTON — Despite months of public outrage over the massive BP oil spill, frustrated Democratic Senate leaders abandoned their effort Tuesday to pass spill-related legislation before leaving for their summer recess later this week.
"That kind of bill, folks, ought to pass 100 to nothing, but it's not," said Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., a leader on energy legislation.
He and other Democrats had sought to raise liability limits on oil companies drilling in U.S. waters and provide incentives for consumers to make their homes and vehicles more energy efficient.
The bill had seemed like a popular response to what's generally regarded as the year's biggest single news event, but now won't be considered before the Senate returns in mid-September at the earliest.
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The measure stalled because Republicans, as well as at least two Democrats, balked at its terms setting unlimited liability for companies responsible for an oil spill. Currently, companies have a $75 million cap on liability for offshore oil spills. Republicans are generally in favor of increasing liability, but not leaving it uncapped, warning that doing so would discourage drilling.
BP has agreed to set aside a $20 billion fund to pay claims of people harmed by the well's April 20 explosion, which killed 11 workers and sent more than 4 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico during the next three months, according to government scientists. The well was contained with a special capping device last month.
The White House has said that the $20 billion was not a cap, and that the company would pay more if necessary. The company has disbursed $271 million to date. BP also is likely to be fined billions of dollars.
The Democrats' bill also would raise the $1 billion liability cap on the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund to $5 billion and increase the amount oil companies are required to pay into it to 49 cents a barrel. Funds from the tax are used for oil spill cleanup, research and other spill expenses.
Democrats said they delayed taking up the measure because they didn't have the Republican support they'd need to pass it. Republicans, however, accused them of political tricks.
The Democrats' decision to delay a vote "merely exposes what we already knew: this was an empty political exercise from the beginning," said Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe, the top Republican on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.
"Meanwhile, as the Majority Leader dithers about how to exploit an environmental tragedy, thousands of workers in the Gulf are suffering because of President Obama's offshore energy moratorium," he charged.
Obama imposed a six-month deepwater offshore oil drilling moratorium in Gulf of Mexico in late May. A GOP alternative would lift it.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., who announced the delay at a news conference, countered that the Republican plan "doesn't even hold BP accountable for the enormous economic damages it's caused to Gulf Coast communities. Their bill doesn't create a single job, and it doesn't do anything to end our addiction to oil."
The House of Representatives passed a broad oil spill bill last week that would make oil companies drilling in U.S. waters subject to unlimited liability. 207 Democrats voted for it, with 39 against, while two Republicans voted for it and 154 were against it.
However, the Senate couldn't muster the 60 votes needed under its rules to end debate. Democrats control 59 seats, and some Democrats had qualms about the unlimited cap.
Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, had been considering voting for the Republican plan because it included a revenue-sharing formula for states, a provision also backed by his Alaska colleague, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, the top Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources committee.
The Republican bill has two flaws, Begich said. It's not retroactive, and it would apply solely to new leases. He's also concerned about the way Republicans structure the liability portion, that at a certain point, taxpayers might be on the hook for a portion of the cleanup.
Begich thought he also made headway in persuading his Democratic colleagues to consider some of the pieces that he and Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., backed, including giving states such as Alaska and Louisiana a share of the revenue from oil extracted in federal waters in their states.
Murkowski, though, was critical of the way Democrats handled the bill, saying she didn't think Reid was "focused on developing good policy."
"It's quite a stretch to call this oil spill legislation," she said. "This was a little bit of this, a little bit of that designed to get 60 votes, and the majority leader failed to get the votes he needed on his side."
(Renee Schoof contributed to this report.)
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