Senators warn approval for drilling oversight bill may hinge on changes

It is sponsored by Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) and ranking member Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiJuan Williams: Counting the votes to remove Trump Roberts under pressure from both sides in witness fight Murkowski wants senators to 'really hear the case' before deciding on impeachment witnesses MORE (R-Alaska) but Murkowski noted it is still a “work in progress.” Earlier this week, she introduced legislation that includes authorizing the president to set a liability cap for offshore oil-and-gas projects using criteria like a company’s safety record and directing 37.5 percent of the revenue earned by offshore drilling to coastal oil-producing states.

Sen. Mary LandrieuMary Loretta LandrieuA decade of making a difference: Senate Caucus on Foster Youth Congress needs to work to combat the poverty, abuse and neglect issues that children face Dems wrestle over how to vote on ‘Green New Deal’ MORE (D-La.) also gave a “reluctant” pass to the bill in the panel despite the lack of revenue-sharing language she has long sought.

More liberal voices on the panel, meanwhile, are seeking to add new ethics provisions. Sen. Robert MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezMedia's selective outrage exposed in McSally-Raju kerfuffle Dem senators say Iran threat to embassies not mentioned in intelligence briefing Overnight Defense: Iran crisis eases as Trump says Tehran 'standing down' | Dems unconvinced on evidence behind Soleimani strike | House sets Thursday vote on Iran war powers MORE (D-N.J.) unsuccessfully tried to make it a felony punishable by up to two years in prison for federal drilling regulators to accept gifts from industry officials. He also wants to double the prison term to 10 years for drilling regulators and industry officials who make false statements. 

"We need to once and for all break up this cozy relationship," Menendez said. "When the American people hear about regulators having sex with industry representatives, they know that by definition that is not an arms-length relationship."

Regulators who accept gifts only lose their jobs under current law, though the panel unanimously agreed to include language from Bingaman making that offense punishable by up to $55,000 in civil fines. Landrieu — in opposing the Menendez amendment — said he had good intentions but went too far. "I think we must be very careful about legislation like this," she said. "Let's do it with care and all the intelligence and wisdom we can bear because this is a very important subject to the American people today." She, Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersSanders apologizes to Biden for supporter's op-ed Jayapal: 'We will end up with another Trump' if the US doesn't elect progressive Former health insurance executive: Current system is bankrupting country MORE (I-Vt.) and others on the panel spoke of possibly working on a broader ethics plan that could be considered in the full Senate.

The panel, by 11-12, narrowly defeated an amendment from Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah) that would have removed anyone from the White House-created commission probing the BP oil spill with a legal conflict of interest.

While not mentioning National Resources Defense Council President Frances Beinecke by name, the amendment was intended to kick her off the commission due to NRDC's intervention on the government's side in an industry lawsuit against the administration's six-month ban on deepwater oil-and-gas drilling. NRDC has said there is a robust firewall between Beinecke and the group's legal work.

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A federal judge blocked the ban earlier this month, but federal officials are seeking to re-impose the moratorium.

The bill is likely one of the centerpieces of a package of legislative responses to the Gulf spill that Senate Majority Leader Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidThe Trumpification of the federal courts Trump to rally evangelicals after critical Christianity Today editorial Left presses 2020 Democrats to retake the courts from Trump MORE (D-Nev.) is planning to bring to the floor in July. The spill-response provisions are intended to be the driver for a broader debate in the full Senate over energy production and carbon pricing proposals that may end up accompanying spill strategies.

Murkowski warned against tying the spill response to broader efforts to combat climate change. Republicans would "protest any attempts to tie these essential elements and actions to other legislative agendas that have proven to have some very bipartisan opposition," she said.

The bipartisanship shown in the Senate energy panel Wednesday stands in stark contrast to much of the congressional debate on how best to address the Gulf spill and future spills.

Democrats on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on Wednesday stood united when panel Republicans unsuccessfully pushed a plan giving the president the discretion over whether and by how much to raise an oil company’s liability cap in the event of a major oil spill. Democrats — who outnumber Republicans 12-7 on the left-leaning panel — instead easily adopted a proposal from Menendez that would retroactively remove any liability cap for BP in the Gulf of Mexico spill and for companies involved in future spills. Sen. David VitterDavid Bruce VitterThe biggest political upsets of the decade Red-state governor races put both parties on edge Louisiana Republicans score big legislative wins MORE (R-La.) was the lone GOP supporter of the Menendez plan.

Menendez had initially pushed the idea of increasing the current $75 million liability cap to $10 billion, which Republicans have derided as arbitrary.

Republicans did get a sympathetic ear from one centrist Democrat on the panel: Sen. Max BaucusMax Sieben BaucusBottom line Overnight Defense: McCain honored in Capitol ceremony | Mattis extends border deployment | Trump to embark on four-country trip after midterms Congress gives McCain the highest honor MORE (Mont.). Baucus voted against the Republican substitute from Environment and Public Works ranking member James InhofeJames (Jim) Mountain InhofeLawmakers push back at Pentagon's possible Africa drawdown Senators take oath for impeachment trial Trump, Democrats set for brawl on Iran war powers MORE (Okla.) but said he shares some of their concerns about removing the liability cap entirely, and will try to make fixes later.

It was also business as usual a couple of hours after the Senate energy and environment panels wrapped their respective business meetings, with Sen. Jeanne ShaheenCynthia (Jeanne) Jeanne Shaheen2020 forecast: A House switch, a slimmer Senate for GOP — and a bigger win for Trump Lewandowski decides against Senate bid Biden would consider Republican for VP 'but I can't think of one right now' MORE (D-N.H.) standing alongside Menendez and Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) in blaming Republicans for objecting to their attempt on the floor today to grant President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaObama marks MLK Day by honoring King for his 'poetic brilliance' and 'moral clarity' Biden breaks away from 2020 pack in South Carolina National Archives says it altered Trump signs, other messages in Women's March photo MORE's oil spill commission subpoena power by unanimous consent.

“I have to conclude Republicans … are standing on the side of the oil companies,” Shaheen told reporters after Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) blocked the consent request on behalf of other Republicans that he did not name. The House voted overwhelmingly to grant the commission subpoena power last week. Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) cast the lone vote against the measure.

— This post was updated at 6:23 p.m.