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Democrats Try To Seize Initiative On Oil Spill

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President Barack Obama and congressional

Democrats are trying to prevent a political disaster along with theenvironmental one taking place in the Gulf of Mexico as they try toconvince Americans frustrated by the ongoing oil spill that BP andRepublican coziness with the oil industry are to blame.

Within a few hours Tuesday, the White House said PresidentBarack Obama would visit the Gulf Coast again next week, whileHouse Speaker Nancy Pelosi set a strict deadline for new oil spilllegislation.

Obama will return for his fourth oil spill-related visit to theregion - this time a two-day trip - Monday and Tuesday to receiveupdates in Mississippi, Alabama and Florida.

Four Democratic-controlled committees were to hold hearingsWednesday, covering spill cleanup, financial responsibility,liability caps and offshore drilling safety.

All this while a Washington Post poll showed nearly half ofthose surveyed - 48 percent - now say Obama does not understand theproblems of people like them, the highest percentage of hispresidency.

And a Pew Research Center poll shows a sharp rise in the numberof people who claim Obama's policies are making the economy worserather than better.

Pelosi told her committee chairmen to produce new legislation byJuly 4 to cope with the spill and prevent future environmentaldisasters.

The House then would act on the bills before Congress' summerrecess, set to begin Aug. 9, a leadership aide said.

Pelosi and Democratic committee chairmen said legislativereforms could address changes in the Interior Department's MineralsManagement Service, which has been found to be too close to thecompanies it's supposed to regulate; a huge increase in the $75million liability cap for spill damages under federal law;increased protection of oil industry workers; and better readinessand response times.

Meanwhile, Senate Democrats on Tuesday proposed a fivefoldincrease in the tax that oil companies pay into a spill liabilityfund. The legislation would raise the tax on oil produced offshorefrom 8 cents a barrel to 41 cents a barrel - 7 cents higher thanlegislation that passed the House last month.

Pelosi and her chairmen sat around a table in her office Tuesdayin what was billed as an opportunity for news photos and videos.But once reporters started asking questions, the speaker and herchairmen got rolling.

"Democrats have tried to rein in Big Oil over time with ourlegislation and our initiatives," she said, while Republicans"have always protected Big Oil."

Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., said BP initially lied about theamount of oil gushing into the Gulf because the amount of thegovernment's fine was based on gallons spewing from the underwaterwell. The Deepwater Horizon drilling rig being leased by BPexploded April 20, killing 11 workers and setting off a massive andcontinuing release of oil into the Gulf.

Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., said BP had a poor safety record,with a spill in the North Slope of Alaska and an explosion at a

Texas City, Texas, refinery in 2005 that killed 15 people.

"It is very clear whether it is on the North Slope, whether itis in the refineries or in the offshore, they can't keep oil in thepipeline," Miller said.

One of the chairmen at the table, Rep. Henry Waxman of theEnergy and Commerce Committee, has asked the U.S. Chemical SafetyBoard to consider, among other things, the corporate safety cultureof BP; what role, if any, cost-cutting may have had in well designand testing; BP's oversight of subcontractors; and whether anyparallels could be drawn between the causes of the Gulf spill andthe 2005 Texas City refinery explosion that killed 15.

Chemical Safety Board Chairman John Bresland said he iscommitted to having his agency investigate the Deepwater Horizonaccident. But first he will check with his two fellow board membersto identify the resources needed to do the job.

The safety board investigated the Texas City refinery accidentand issued a scathing report faulting BP management.

In another development, Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen wrote BP CEOTony Hayward demanding "more detail and openness" about how thecompany is handling mounting damage claims.

Allen complained in Tuesday's letter that BP is failing toprovide "information we need to meet our responsibilities to ourcitizens."

Allen had said earlier this week at a news conference that hefelt BP was struggling to efficiently process relief claims fromindividuals and businesses in the stricken area, attributing thatto the company's lack of experience in the area.

In the letter made public Wednesday, Allen said that "the NICand our state counterparts have made several requests foradditional information which we have not received."

"Access to this level of detail is critical to informing thepublic as to how BP is meeting its obligations as a responsiblecorporation," Allen said. "I expect a response from BP on thiscritical issue as soon as possible."

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