Oil spill triggers dispute between two Senate Dems from Gulf Coast states

The massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has sparked an intraparty battle between two Senate Democrats.

Sens. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Bill Nelson of Florida are the only two Senate Democrats from the five Gulf Coast states.

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Both are considered centrists though Landrieu is clearly to the right of Nelson. Both have watched as natural disasters devastated their states. And both believe their view of what should happen in the wake of the disaster is right – worsening a rift that has long existed between them.

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 Cantwell (D-Wash.) to defend Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) in a tangle with Democratic leaders. The trio was accusing Majority Leader Harry Reid (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 Kerry (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.”