WASHINGTON -- The only senator opposed to a bill to toughen federal safety regulation of oil and gas pipelines said Wednesday he's willing to work with Senate leaders to schedule a debate on the measure, but he's still blocking expedited passage.
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., who is philosophically opposed to federal regulation, also blamed Democratic leaders for the Senate's failure to act on the measure, saying they could have scheduled a debate and vote on the bill at any time.
But a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., accused Paul of "a classic tea party stunt."
"The simple fact is that if Sen. Paul stopped blocking this bill, it would sail through with overwhelming bipartisan support," spokesman Adam Jentleson said.
The bill has wide, bipartisan support and is backed by industry and safety groups. It was approved without opposition by the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee in May. Paul is the only senator opposing an effort by the bill's Democratic sponsors to pass it swiftly using "unanimous consent" procedures that eliminate the need for a time-consuming debate.
"I believe legislation should have open debate and votes. It need not take weeks. Certainly we could spend an afternoon for the people's elected representatives to discuss whether they got massive new regulations," Paul said in a statement.
Paul, a tea party ally, was a tax protestor and worked as an ophthalmologist before winning election to the Senate, his first public office, last year. He shares with his father, Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, a determination to reduce the size and power of the federal government. The elder Paul is running for the Republican presidential nomination.
Most Senate bills, except for top legislative priorities, are approved using "unanimous consent" procedures that forgo a debate and roll call vote. That's because the Senate's procedures typically require days or weeks to pass a single bill.
The pipeline bill is, in part, a response to a series of pipeline accidents over the past year and a half, including a gas explosion last year that killed eight people and heavily damaged a suburban subdivision in San Bruno, Calif., near San Francisco. The bill would authorize more federal safety inspectors, and pipeline companies would have to confirm that their records on how much pressure their pipelines can tolerate are accurate.
The bill would allow federal regulators to order that automatic shutoff valves be installed on new pipelines so leaks can be halted sooner, but it stops short of requiring the valves for existing pipelines. And it directs regulators to determine whether mandatory inspections of aging pipelines in densely populated areas should be expanded to include lines in rural areas. It would be paid for by industry fees.
The bill is supported by the industry's major trade associations – the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America, the American Gas Association and the Association of Oil Pipelines – as well as the Pipeline Safety Trust, a safety advocacy group.
"The bill puts in place new mandates; it hires new bureaucrats," Paul said. He also said the bill "grandfathers in the very pipelines that have had recent problems," an apparent reference to automatic shutoff valves.
Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., whose district includes San Bruno, said the bill is a "good start" but doesn't go far enough to incorporate National Transportation Safety Board recommendations.
Paul's actions show he is "blinded by ideology" and "indifferent to the overwhelming evidence that self-regulation of the gas industry is a prescription for further death and injury," Speier said in a statement.