Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announced this afternoon he was calling off a set of offshore drilling reforms that had been under consideration since the Gulf oil spill in April. Republicans were surprised. Environmentalists were shocked.
Why delay the response to an enormous disaster that happened way back in April? Well, for starters, the Senate is debating and voting on Elena Kagan’s nomination to the Supreme Court this week, so committing to a set of drilling reforms could mean staying in session an extra week or longer – an idea all 100 members could be expected to oppose. But then it just gets into politics. Reid said he simply couldn’t get enough votes to pass an effective measure. Republicans said Reid wasn't willing to reach out to them. But the truth is that the so-called Spill Bill–aimed at firming regulating on new offshore drilling–has never been that controversial. Pictures of oil-soaked pelicans have most of the Senate, save for a few members from oil states, agreeing that something needs to be done on future drilling permits, and the only opposition, really, is from oil companies, which aren’t particularly popular these days anyway. So unless a regulatory bill veers way off course, it should be a guaranteed victory for Democrats, which is useful to keep in their back pocket as the election looms. That said, there are still parts that are controversial, such as raising the liability cap for oil and gas companies, or a formerly-unknown process called hydro-fracking that involves a questionable method of extracting natural gas. So by delaying the bill until September, Democrats deny Republicans a set of talking points in their districts during the August recess.
There could also be ulterior motives for the Democrats to punt. The Spill Bill has been, for months, the best hope of getting a sweeping climate and energy bill through the Senate. So not wanting to squander the opportunity, top Democrats – including, perhaps, climate black belt Sen. John Kerry – would rather wait until September (or even into the lame duck session after November) to repackage the Spill Bill with another version of a carbon cutting measure. Again, the hope would be to avoid GOP cat calls this month. Reid's office says that there could be a more robust package coming together in the fall, or at the latest, according to a spokesman, "by the end of the year."
The main drawback, then, for Democrats is that the Senate looks fairly ineffectual, waiting five months or longer to address a huge national disaster. But that kind of criticism, of course, is nothing new.