By Molly K. Hooper - 06/30/10 10:00 AM EDT
Lawmakers who represent the oil-stained Gulf Coast are struggling to deal with the catastrophe and the effect it has had on their constituents.
In an interview with The Hill, Rep. Jo Bonner (R-Ala.) used the word “frustration” repeatedly to express his emotions about the nation’s worst environmental disaster.
“What you hope and pray is that this isn’t the first of just a cascading series of episodes where people just can’t stand the pressure,” Bonner said.
Usually at this time of an election year, members of Congress are planning their summer vacations and mapping out their campaigns for the fall.
But for the legislators whose states and districts are affected by the oil spill, this is no ordinary year.
Rep. Joseph Cao (R-La.) can smell the damage caused to his New Orleans-based district.
“Oftentimes I will wake up and I will smell the fumes and I keep on thinking, ‘I don’t want my children to smell this.’ I’m concerned about the health of my two daughters, and that is a concern that resonates throughout my district,” Cao said.
Cao checks in with officials at the Environmental Protection Agency to ensure that his residents are not in danger, he said. He is constantly asking whether the water and seafood are safe while getting daily updates on the spill.
“There’s not a single day that passes that people don’t come up to me asking what’s being done to cap the spill, what’s being done to clean up, what’s being done to help with people with claims,” Cao said.
Cao, along with Democrats in Louisiana like Sen. Mary Landrieu and Senate hopeful Rep. Charlie Melancon, have criticized the president’s moratorium on drilling. They say that the policy is misguided because people in their state need jobs — especially now.
But Bonner, an advocate of drilling, is hesitant to criticize the president.
“Until we can get a better comfort zone that we know what caused this, and we can get greater assurance that this won’t happen again, then that’s just one area where I understand the moratorium,” Bonner said.
The Alabama Republican is feeling pressure to be more outspoken. Bonner met on Friday in his district office with a group of shipbuilders, rig suppliers and hardware store owners that service the oil industry.
“I told them if it came up for a vote, I would vote to lift the moratorium but that I just was not going to lead the charge on this,” Bonner said.
A federal judge last week overruled the Obama administration’s moratorium. The White House had vowed to appeal the decision.
Bonner, known for his affable personality, recently called on Energy and Commerce ranking member Joe Barton to give up his post after the Texas Republican apologized to BP.
Declining to answer questions about Barton, Bonner pulled out two glossy photographs from a manila folder to make his point that many in Washington don’t comprehend the devastation.
“This is my coast,” he said, holding a photo of a pristine white-sand coastline with turquoise water washing on the shore.
“That’s what it looks like now,” he sighed as his eyes watered up, showing another photo of the same coastline, now pocked with globs of incandescent-fire orange and oil floating in the water.
The emotional toll that the oil spill has had on members was evident in late May when Melancon teared up at a committee hearing. Two minutes into his opening statement, an emotional Melancon stopped and said he would submit his comments for the record as Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.) put his arm around him.