Democrats keep up push on BP liability

Senate Democrats say their legislation eliminating the liability cap for oil companies in the wake of an oil spill is still necessary even if BP agrees to put $20 billion into an escrow account, which Democrats urged the oil giant to do in a letter sent Monday.

"They're not incongruent with each other, and our legislation is certainly needed," said Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., chief sponsor of the unlimited cap bill, in a conference call. "While I think the $20 billion is incredibly important as a very significant down payment ... I just don't want to limit the liability to that."

An escrow account -- an idea the White House informally announced over the weekend and pushed by Democrats in Monday's letter -- could partially resolve the immediate issue of how to hold BP accountable for the Gulf of Mexico spill. The Obama administration has said the account would be run by a third party and hold BP legally responsible to compensate Gulf residents and businesses for their spill-related losses.

In sponsoring GOP-backed legislation that would eliminate the liability cap for BP alone, Sen. David Vitter, R-La., has said the Menendez legislation faces an uphill battle given GOP opposition. By contrast, the Vitter bill would address that immediate concern of holding BP liable.

But Menendez said the letter, which was signed by all but four Senate Democrats, was not meant to undermine Vitter's legislation. Indeed, his bill got a bipartisan boost over the weekend when House Minority Leader Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, endorsed an unlimited cap on the ABC News program "This Week."

Menendez and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said Monday that Vitter's bill is unconstitutional and has huge loopholes that would allow BP to elude compensation payments, much like Exxon Valdez did following the 1989 oil spill in Alaska.

"Coming from the Exxon Valdez experience, any loophole that is created Monday will be plowed through by the oil company in the ensuring years when these payments need to be paid," Murray said.

Vitter said last week his bill would stand up to legal challenges from BP and others, but he said he is open to changing technical aspects of his proposal.

The Democrats' letter requests a response from BP CEO Tony Hayward by Friday, two days after BP executives meet with President Obama. The four Democrats who did not sign the letter are Sens. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Kent Conrad of North Dakota, Robert Byrd of West Virginia, and Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M. But Bingaman is planning to send a letter of his own.

Obama is expected to make a formal pitch for the escrow account in his first-ever televised address from the Oval Office Tuesday night. He is traveling Monday and Tuesday to Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida, his fourth visit to the region and his first overnight trip.

But the White House has not officially endorsed the $20 billion down payment into the account or any other specific amount.

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