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War of Words Over Oil Spill Heats Up on Hill

The politics of the Gulf oil spill heated up Thursday, with Democratic Senators taking aim at BP and, to a lesser extent, Senate Republicans, as they sought to pin responsibility for the disaster squarely on the shoulders of the energy giant.

In a news conference, Democratic Sens. Jeanne Shaheen (N.H.), Frank Lautenberg (N.J.), Bob Menendez (N.J.) and Bill Nelson (Fla.) pushed legislation that would remove the cap on how much money oil companies can be forced to pay in the event of a disaster. Some Republicans have blocked the legislation, and Lautenberg said it was time for the GOP to “get out from under the thumb of Big Oil.”

The four Democratic Senators declined to criticize President Barack Obama’s handling of the incident, which began with the explosion in late April of a deepwater drill rig. On Thursday, the Interior Department fired Minerals Management Service Director Elizabeth Birnbaum, a move the Senators called a positive step on the part of the administration.

Nelson said he is satisfied with the Obama administration’s response to an oil spill being called the worst in U.S. history but said it might be time to deploy the military to manage the cleanup. Members on Capitol Hill are collectively holding their breath hoping a “top kill” maneuver under way by BP successfully plugs the leak.

“If this top kill is successful today, like we are prayerfully hopeful it will be, you still need a major organization like the U.S. military that can come in and coordinate all the civilian agencies,” Nelson said.

Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions (R), whose state’s coastal economy is being threatened by the oil spill, was equally committed to ensuring that BP paid for the full cost of the cleanup. Sessions said he supports a bill by Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) that would scrap the liability cap for BP in regards to the Gulf oil spill.

But unlike his Democratic counterparts, Sessions said the White House response to the spill left much to be desired. The Senator said the administration should have made better use of the Federal Emergency Management Agency to coordinate a more effective response with state and local government entities.

“I don’t think any of it’s gone very well. I think the most serious lack was the focus on the oil on the marshes and the attempt to clean that up — I don’t think we’re where we need to be,” Sessions said in regard to the spill’s effect on Louisiana. “We’ve been lucky in Alabama because we haven’t had any hit our shores yet.”

Obama during a Thursday afternoon news conference was expected to outline the steps the administration would take moving forward. Among them was a temporary moratorium on permits for new offshore oil drilling platforms and a cancellation of drilling leases recently granted. Shaheen, Lautenberg, Menendez and Nelson said that would be a step in the right direction.

A group of Democratic Senators who represent Atlantic Coast states were scheduled to hold a second news conference later Thursday afternoon responding to the actions Obama planned to lay out during his news conference.

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