It's been more than three weeks since Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) unveiled a proposal to raise the liability cap to $10 billion for oil companies involved in economically damaging offshore spills. And despite two efforts to pass the legislation through the Senate, the backing of the president and an ever-dire crisis in the Gulf of Mexico, there currently exists no clear path forward for getting the idea into law.
Under normal circumstances, the inaction would be chalked up to the normal lethargy of the Senate chamber. Three weeks, after all, is a relative blip in a legislative calendar that often sees bills and nominations debated well beyond that. But disasters -- such as the expanding oil spill in the Gulf -- usually spur quick, populist-stoked legislative action. The mere fact that Congress has been unable to accomplish something as politically obvious as asking companies like BP to pay more for the spills they create has some on the Hill shaking their heads.
"Beyond anything else," said one Senate Democratic aide, "it's frustrating."
The failure to pass Menendez's proposal has become symbolic, in no small way, of what Democratic strategist James Carville described as a "lackadaisical" response to the crisis as a whole. As with the government's efforts to stop the flow of leaking oil, top Senate Democratic aides insist that they are utilizing all the available tools to get the liability cap raise into law. So far, two unanimous consent agreements to pass the bill have failed after a single Republican senator expressed objections -- worried, they say, that the higher liability would make it prohibitively expensive for smaller oil companies to drill in the Gulf.
Democrats in the Senate have pledged to keep pushing for votes. But, as one top aide, noted, with leadership planning to consider a war supplemental bill, a tax extenders bill, judicial nominees and so on, time is getting tight. Senator Menendez is set to brief reporters on the matter Tuesday afternoon. And it would not come as a surprise if, in addition to bashing GOP opposition, he unveils a plan to introduce his bill as an amendment to a larger piece of legislation.
"We are looking at the possibility of getting it attached as an amendment to an upcoming bill but that hasn't been fully decided yet," said a Menendez aide.
The senator is certainly hoping for some additional help from the administration regardless of the legislative route. To this point, the president has expressed general agreement with the Menendez approach -- though, unlike the senator, he has refused to specify a number at which he wants the cap set. Last week, after Republicans stopped the second effort to get the cap raised via unanimous consent, Obama put out a statement condemning the party's heel-dragging.
Beyond that, White House officials have been in discussions with members of the Senate to help chart ways to get legislation through the chamber. And while a major lobbying campaign has yet to be generated, the administration is starting to make a bit more noise.
"We have been working with Congress," said Carol Browner, Director of the White House Office of Energy and Climate Change Policy. "And we will actually have three administration officials testifying [Tuesday] before the Senate Energy and Natural Resource Committee."
Those officials are Thomas Perrelli, Associate Attorney General at the Department of Justice, Craig Bennett, director of the National Pollution Funds Center for the Coast Guard and David Hayes, Deputy Secretary at the Department of Interior.