Fallout begins after Senate's failure to act on energy, oil spill

After the worst oil leak in U.S. history and months of heated negotiations on energy and spill-response legislation, senators will head home for the August recess empty-handed.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said he plans to bring back the spill bill or a broader measure in September, but even narrowed legislation may not pass with a cluttered legislative calendar and the November elections looming.

And the political fallout of inaction may cut against both parties, said Norm Ornstein, a congressional expert at the American Enterprise Institute.

"It's a hell of a way to try to gain some political traction to let people suffer just so you can show that nothing's getting done," Ornstein said.

Senate Democrats began the year with ambitious plans to pass a sweeping climate and energy bill similar to the package that cleared the House last summer, but those plans were gradually whittled down amid political pressures. Even provisions that were once seen as certain to be in a final Senate package, like a renewable electricity standard, were stripped from the Senate bill.


And in the end, the chamber punted on even the oil spill-response bill, which many saw as the bare minimum the Senate would finalize before heading home.

"I think in some respects, it simply illustrates the fundamental challenges of getting something done in an election year," said David Hunter, U.S. director for the International Emissions Trading Association. "The normal things don't work this year."

Heading into campaign season, political observers are divided over who will emerge from the fray with the upper hand.

"I think you've really got to give the nod to the Democrats," said Ross Baker, a political expert at Rutgers University and a former Senate staffer.

"Clearly it's something that I think a reasonable person would have thought would have passed by a kind of bipartisan consensus vote," he said. "I think the Democrats can simply say, 'Look, we really wanted to apply safeguards to drilling and Republicans denied it to us,' so on balance I think the Democrats probably gain from it."

But inaction looks bad for Democrats, countered Andrew Wheeler, a former Republican staff director for the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee who now works for B&D Consulting.

"It showed he wasn't serious about passing it," Wheeler said of Reid's decision to pull the bills from floor consideration. "It was all for political theater."

Many other observers, including Ornstein and Hunter, say the politics may be a wash, with each party trying to reinforce stereotypes about the other.

"It just is another brick in both parties' argument," said Jennifer Duffy, senior editor at the Cook Political Report. "It's another argument Democrats make that 'See, Republicans block everything we do,' which may or may not be accurate, and Republicans say, 'We stopped Democrats from doing one more irresponsible thing.'"

A regional matter?

The political consequences will be most keenly felt in the Gulf Coast region.

"Obviously, it's regionally very important," said Marc Morano, director of the climate skeptic website "Climate Depot" and a former spokesman for Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.). "But I don't think people in Iowa, New England or Wisconsin are clamoring for an oil spill bill."

A Pew Research/National Journal Congressional Connection poll conducted last week found that 69 percent of those surveyed said they favored including stronger regulation of offshore drilling -- a key component of Reid's plan -- in an energy bill.

Still, Morano thinks the oil spill-response legislation was an "inside Washington thing" and a "very minor issue for the voters."

"I don't think there is going to be a big price to pay," for not passing legislation before the recess, Morano said. "If they had passed something, if would have been based on cheap politics at its best."

Cook Political Report's Duffy echoed those thoughts. "With the possible exception of certain places in Louisiana, I don't think this is going to be a voting issue for anybody, but it's just more tinder for the fire."

In Louisiana, though, Congress' response to the oil spill is playing high in GOP Sen. David Vitter's re-election bid.

Vitter is being challenged by Rep. Charlie Melancon (D), who was the primary author of an amendment to an oil spill-response package the House passed last week that would lift the Obama administration's moratorium on deepwater drilling if companies adhere to stricter safety standards.

Vitter has criticized Melancon's amendment as ineffectual. But Melancon has blasted back with a robocall to Louisiana voters blaming the Republican for blocking efforts to pass the legislation in the Senate.

"Congressman Charlie Melancon just passed a bill in Congress to lift the job-killing moratorium," the call begins. "He brought Republicans and Democrats together to bring some relief to the Louisiana economy. But the Senate has to pass Charlie Melancon's bill before the moratorium on drilling is lifted, and Senator David Vitter is standing in the way."

Looking ahead to September

Although Reid has promised to bring an energy and oil spill-response plan back to the Senate floor this fall, observers say it is unlikely that lawmakers will have a chance to pass anything amid a legislative calendar that will remain crowded.

"I think they're going to be running up against the clock in the fall," said Wheeler, the former EPW Republican staff director. "But it all depends on what happens in August; it depends on what happens with the spill cleanup."

AEI's Ornstein said despite "enough pent-up demand" to pass a bill in September, he doubts Reid would be able to push through a broader bill after the August break. He said there is a chance for something that involves drilling standards and some additional conservation measures but nothing so far as a carbon cap.

Baker said the chances of getting something done in September are even more remote than they were before the recess, now that the well has been capped and the November elections are looming.

"I think that the urgency has just gone out of it," Baker said. And with the clock winding down to Election Day, Republicans are hoping "to put as few goodies in the Democratic basket as possible."

Like what you see?

We thought you might.

Start a free trial now.

Get access to our comprehensive, daily coverage of energy and environmental politics and policy.