POLITICS
06/30/2010 12:18 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Sen. Menendez Scores Important Victory In Lifting BP's Liability Cap

After weeks of inaction and Republican obstruction, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) finally scored a victory on Wednesday when a Senate committee approved his measure to make unlimited an oil company's liability for a spill.

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee passed by voice vote the Big Oil Bailout Prevention Act, which removes the preexisting $75 million liability cap limiting the amount an oil company has to pay for economic-related damages caused by a spill.

The legislation, which had been blocked on four separate occasions when Menendez attempted to use unanimous consent, now heads to the Senate floor for full consideration, where its fate remains up in the air.

Top aides on the Hill say the most likely course of action would be for Senate Majority Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to add the bill (as well as other BP-disaster response measures) to the climate change legislation that the body already is considering. The logic is that the additional amendments would make the overall package more politically inviting for swing votes. On the flip side, of course, is the fact that Mendendez's bill could end up being killed if the Senate can't muster the 60 votes to pass a climate change bill -- a concern that has been expressed to Reid.

"At this point we are working with the leader," said Afhsin Mohamadi, the senator's press secretary. "If he wants to do it in climate change, we will be supportive of that."

If the Big Oil Bailout Prevention Act is not added to climate change legislation, it will most likely be considered as a stand-alone bill in the weeks ahead.

There have been legal questions as to whether the senator's legislation would apply ex post facto to the current crisis in the Gulf. But aides to Menendez insist that under the language BP would see a complete lift of the cap on its liability.