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Democrats Send Mixed Messages on Liability
May 26, 2010

Posted by Matt Dempsey Matt_Dempsey@epw.senate.gov

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Congress Daily  

Taking A Spill

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

by Darren Goode, with Amy Harder contributing

Link to Article

Earlier this month, Interior Secretary Salazar told the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee the White House and Congress need to work in bipartisan harmony to determine how much more companies should pay for damages linked to a major oil spill like the one in the Gulf of Mexico. The same day, President Obama sent a more pointedly partisan message to Senate Republicans.

Obama released a statement while Salazar was still testifying accusing Republicans of engaging in "special-interest politics" in rejecting attempts by some Senate Democrats to increase a $75 million liability cap to $10 billion. Salazar had reminded two Senate panels just hours earlier that Obama had sent legislation to lawmakers the prior week, saying more work was needed to specify how much liability limits should be raised.

The events of May 18 were merely one example of how the administration's rhetoric regarding the Gulf spill has not always kept officials on the same page.

"It's not consistent," Senate Energy and Natural Resources ranking member Lisa Murkowski said. "I don't know if they're consulting one another before they speak."

"I am quite frankly baffled by the lack of coordination in the administration's response," said the Brookings Institution's Bill Galston, a former policy adviser to President Bill Clinton and an adviser to former vice presidents Al Gore and Walter Mondale when they ran for president. "I would have thought that given the impact this can have on the reputation and standing of an administration, that the White House would have moved quite early in the process to establish some coordinated message and policy in the White House." He added, "Either that was not done or was done but not done correctly. Suffice it to say, this has not been the administration's finest hour."

The mixed rhetoric continued this week. After meeting with BP officials in Houston Sunday, Salazar said he was "angry and frustrated that BP has been unable to stop this well from leaking and to stop the pollution from spreading," and threatened to "push them out of the way" if necessary to address the spill.

That led White House senior adviser David Axelrod to defend BP's response the next morning and to signal the company in fact should not be pushed aside.

"Does anybody really believe that BP is dragging their feet in solving this problem?" Axelrod said in an interview on MSNBC.

Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen -- who is heading the administration's spill response effort -- said at the White House briefing Monday that, "To push BP out of the way, it would raise the question, to replace them with what?"

Salazar issued a clarification Monday as well, including that administration officials have "been very clear that there are areas where BP and the private sector are the ones who must continue to lead the efforts, with government oversight, such as in the deployment of private sector technology 5,000 feet below the ocean surface to kill the well."

Asked for comment, a White House spokesman would only add in an e-mail that this particular column was "lame/ridiculous/inaccurate/dated and unworthy of a response."

Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., said the administration's messaging -- while mixed earlier this week -- is improving. "When the secretary of the Interior says one thing and the commandant of the Coast Guard says another thing, yes that's a mixed message. But they're getting their message together," he said.

The administration has other defenders.

"This big an operation, with so many different departments of government in it -- and I think at long last we have a government that actually wants to get the job done right rather than just message consistently as the Bush administration was fond of doing -- that it doesn't seem surprising to me that one may find discrepancies between what people are saying," said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I. Whitehouse toured the spill area Monday with Salazar and several other senators. He added, "But I haven't really noticed it."

There is enormous pressure not just on BP to address the spill but also on Obama and his administration, who do not want any excuse for critics to link the administration's response effort to the botched Bush administration response to Hurricane Katrina. In addition, the Gulf spill -- while drawing comparisons to the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster -- is bigger and more complicated, the least of which includes a response effort in far deeper waters and a fragile ecosystem.

"I think they're reacting to a crisis that's unfolding minute by minute," said Dan Weiss, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. "When that happens, sometimes they don't have the opportunity to get everybody on the same page before they start talking in public."

The White House announced Tuesday that Obama would be traveling to Louisiana's Gulf Coast Friday to survey the spill and the response effort. "My guess is that wasn't on his schedule two days ago," Weiss said.

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