House Minority Leader John Boehner fully broke ranks with the Chamber of Commerce today by accepting that under no circumstances should taxpayers be on the hook for any clean up costs or damages resulting from the Gulf oil spill.
“No taxpayer money for cleanup or damages — period. BP pays,” Boehner spokesman Michael Steel tells the Washington Post.
It’s an uncomfortable departure for Boehner who got hammered all day, after he appeared to agree with Chamber President Tom Donohue that the government should pitch in to pay those costs. But it remains unclear how or when Boehner proposes to force BP to cover damages.
Back on May 28, Donohue responded to a question about retroactively lifting BP’s $75 million liability cap. “It is generally not the practice of this country to change the laws after the game,” he said. “Everybody is going to contribute to this clean up. We are all going to have to do it. We are going to have to get the money from the government and from the companies and we will figure out a way to do that.”
Asked today whether he agreed, Boehner seemed to side with Donohue. “I think the people responsible in the oil spill—BP and the federal government—should take full responsibility for what’s happening there,” he said.
The response from Democrats and the media was swift and fierce. Boehner’s office responded by pointing to statements he issued several weeks ago indicating that he expects BP to pay for the entire cost of the cleanup.
But the question of physically cleaning up the mess was never in doubt—BP is required by law to cover that cost. As one Hill aide emailed, “His spokesman’s statement still skirts the issue. When he says BP should be responsible for ‘the cost of the cleanup’, he’s restating the obvious, since current law says BP is responsible for the cost of the cleanup. It’s the liability for economic damage from the spill on which they won’t give a straight answer.”
House and Senate Democrats, particularly those who oppose offshore drilling, have been pushing—hard—to raise the cap on damages, or eliminate it altogether. Some want that legislation to apply retroactively to BP, so that they don’t walk away paying too little. The current cap only requires them to pony up $75 million. They hit Boehner the hardest.
“At the same time Senate Republicans were angling to protect Big Oil from vehicle fuel efficiency standards, the leader of the House Republicans was angling to protect BP from paying for the economic damage it is causing,” said DSCC chair Robert Menendez, who is sponsoring legislation to eliminate the cap. “This tells us all we need to know about who Republicans stand with.”
Rep. Charlie Melancon (D-LA), who’s running for Senate in Louisiana and whose district has been hit hardest by the spill took it further. “David Vitter and his allies continue to stick up for a BP bailout, letting BP off the hook and leaving the American people to foot the bill. Whether it’s John Boehner or David Vitter, I just don’t agree that taxpayers should bailout oil companies during this or any other oil spill.”
(Vitter has proposed eliminating the cap for BP but opposes extending that to future spills.)
Hours later Boehner relented, saying BP should pay all oil spill costs. But he and other Republicans continue to oppose most of the current efforts to change the law and truly put the oil giant on the hook.
“Why don’t we get the oil stopped, figure out what the hell went wrong, and then have hearing and get the damn law fixed,” Boehner said earlier today, before the brouhaha over his remarks.
NRSC chairman John Cornyn agrees. “I think part of what we need to do, hopefully in a more calm and deliberate way, rather than sort of start changing the law before we know what the consequence will be, both intended and unintended,” he told me. But, he added, Donohue’s proposal goes too far. “I don’t see much mood for any more bailouts for anybody,” he said.
Brian Beutler is TPM's senior congressional reporter. Since 2009, he's led coverage of health care reform, Wall Street reform, taxes, the GOP budget, the government shutdown fight, and the debt limit fight. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.