By Ben Geman - 07/16/10 12:05 AM EDT
House Democratic leaders said Thursday that they are on the cusp of making decisions about the scope of the oil spill response legislation that is headed for the House floor before the August recess.
The action came on the same day BP reported a major breakthrough in its efforts to stop the massive oil spill that began three months ago in the Gulf of Mexico.
The company blocked the oil completely when it closed off valves on the well to test pressure, and pending the results could leave the seal in place until a relief well is completed to end the leak permanently.
Back on Capitol Hill, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) huddled with a group of committee chairmen in Pelosi’s office shortly after two more panels cleared spill-related bills.
Hoyer said he expected decisions by the end of Friday on the House package. The chamber is expected to remain in session for the next two weeks, and a leadership aide said floor action could occur during either week.
“We just reviewed what the possibilities are,” Pelosi told reporters in the Capitol as she exited the meeting. “Now we will see how we proceed legislatively, but that decision has not been made yet.”
It remains unclear if House leaders will cobble together a single package or seek votes on a series of measures. “It may not be a package,” Hoyer told reporters after the meeting. “We are still discussing that.”
Pelosi also said some measures could be taken up after the monthlong break.
An Energy and Commerce Committee bill to improve drilling safety appears almost certain to be in the mix.
Hoyer praised the legislation, unanimously approved by the panel, which creates new drilling rig safeguards, such as improved well-design standards. He said he expected floor action on that bill before the recess, a plan confirmed by a Democratic leadership aide.
Less clear is the path forward for a much broader — and bitterly contested — bill that the Natural Resources Committee approved with no GOP votes Thursday. Two Democrats on the committee voted against the plan, which passed 27-21.
That bill would overhaul Interior Department oversight, require many new safeguards, impose new fees on oil and natural gas production and end some royalty waivers for offshore producers, among many other measures.
It also contains a provision dubbed “use it or lose it” that empowers Interior to yank leases from companies that are not taking “diligent” steps to develop them. Such provisions have been kicking around Democratic bills for years — their supporters argue that oil companies pushing to open new areas are sometimes failing to develop their existing tracts.
Oil industry groups are lobbying against the bill, claiming some provisions would discourage energy development and cost jobs.
The industry is on the defensive politically in the wake of the massive Gulf spill, but a flurry of statements from industry trade groups shows that they’ll fight on this one.
“The bill passed by the House Natural Resources Committee today moves well beyond a response to the tragic accident in the Gulf of Mexico, to the point where — if adopted by the Congress — provisions of the legislation will kill jobs, stifle economic recovery and punish an already reeling Gulf Coast community,” American Petroleum Institute President Jack Gerard said in a prepared statement.
The bill’s sponsor, Natural Resources Committee Chairman Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.), told reporters after the meeting with Pelosi that it was not determined yet whether the bill would come up before the August recess.
Several other House committees have also approved bills that respond to the BP spill.
The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee approved a far-reaching package weeks ago that would lift limits on industry liability for spill damages and require improvements to federal agency and industry spill response planning.
The suite of provisions would also require vessels drilling off the coast that are U.S.-flagged to ensure they are bound by domestic safety rules, according to the committee. The bill passed easily by voice vote.
The Science and Technology Committee, meanwhile, easily approved a pair of bills Wednesday aimed at bolstering research into improved oil spill cleanup technologies and safer drilling methods.