By J. Taylor Rushing - 05/09/10 11:35 PM EDT
The massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has sparked an intraparty battle between two Senate Democrats.
Sens. Mary LandrieuMary Landrieu oil is changing the world and Washington Ex-Sen. Kay Hagan joins lobby firm Republican announces bid for Vitter’s seat MORE of Louisiana and Bill NelsonBill NelsonThree more Republican senators to meet with Supreme Court nominee This week: Congress on track to miss Puerto Rico deadline Senate looks for easy wins amid 2016 gridlock MORE of Florida are the only two Senate Democrats from the five Gulf Coast states.
Landrieu put up a strong defense last week of the oil industry, describing the spill as tragic but not something likely to be repeated. Louisiana is the third-highest crude oil producing state in the United States, with the industry having a $65 billion impact on the state.
Nelson likewise offered a defense – of his state’s biggest industry. The tourism sector stands to be threatened if the spill drifts east onto the Sunshine State’s beaches just as the summer season begins. According to one state study, almost exactly the same amount of money – $65 billion – is spent by tourists in Florida each year.
Following a meeting with BP CEO Tony Hayward on Tuesday, Nelson displayed a rare irritability with Landrieu, pointing out that while other senators are reconsidering whether the Senate’s energy bill should include offshore oil drilling, she won’t budge.
“What you have is people up and down the Gulf Coast in an absolute panic right now,” Nelson said. “Do you not think that’s going to translate through to members of Congress… [but] not Mary. Not Mary. Don’t ever think that when it comes to oil drilling that Mary’s going to change.”
The next day, Landrieu fired back that Nelson and others who want to slow or stop offshore oil production are overreacting.
“I’m not inflexible, but facts are inflexible.…And the facts are that we’ve drilled 1,000 wells in the Gulf, and all of them have been drilled with safety and with no disruption,” she said.
“I don’t believe we should shut down an industry because we had one accident, even as bad as this one is. It would be like asking if an airliner falls out of the sky, do we stop flying all planes?”
Nelson later told The Hill he has no personal issue with Landrieu, and other Democrats say they have not seen the two spar behind the scenes. In fact, at a caucus meeting last month, Nelson and Landrieu teamed up with Sen. Maria CantwellMaria CantwellThis week: Congress on track to miss Puerto Rico deadline Week ahead: Senate looks to wrap up energy, water spending bill Senate, House face time crunch on energy bill MORE (D-Wash.) to defend Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) in a tangle with Democratic leaders. The trio was accusing Majority Leader Harry ReidHarry ReidOvernight Energy: Dems block energy spending bill for second day Senate GOP hardening stance against emergency funding for Zika Senate Dems block spending bill over Iran amendment — again MORE (D-Nev.) and Banking Committee Chairman Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) of disrespecting Lincoln’s work on a proposal to regulate derivatives.
Still, Nelson and Landrieu may be bound for a head-on collision: Nelson has threatened what would be the second filibuster of his nine-year Senate career to block any climate change bill that expands oil drilling in the eastern Gulf.
“It comes down to passion,” one senior Republican said of Landrieu and Nelson. “Mary gets absolutely passionate about that industry. She gets fired up. Then you look at Nelson. What feeds his state? Tourism. So the industry that’s Mary’s state’s bread and butter is the enemy of the bread and butter for Bill’s state. What happens when that happens? Bill’s going to be passionate too.”
Some issues, though, have kept Nelson and Landrieu apart, including federal aid for recovery efforts after Hurricane Katrina. Senate aides say Nelson is among a group of senators frustrated that Landrieu has repeatedly won Katrina money for her state – five years after the storm – at the expense of other states.
One man in the middle of the two is Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John KerryJohn KerrySenate confirms Obama's long-stalled ambassador to Mexico The challenge: Reaching 350 million youth worldwide Obama’s Iran playbook gives hope to Darfur MORE (D-Mass.), who has been tapped by Reid to stitch together the Senate’s climate change bill. Fallout from the BP oil spill has left Kerry as a kind of referee in an unexpected tug-of-war. On one side are colleagues like Landrieu who want to keep oil drilling in the bill, and on the other are senators like Nelson who are urging him to remove it.
As news of the spill dominated headlines, Landrieu and Nelson said they have pulled Kerry aside to lobby on behalf of their states.
How will Kerry thread the needle?
“Sensibly,” he said. “Just by being thoughtful and hopefully smart about where we are. I think we can come up with a good resolution. We’ll do something sensible. We’ll just have to hold tight to see what that is.”