What happens when you’re a small government, pro-business conservative and your state gets pummeled by one of the worst man made disasters ever – not five years after getting pummeled by one of the worst natural disasters (Hurricane Katrina)? If you’re Louisiana Senator David Vitter, you double down on offshore drilling and push for a liability cap for BP.
Doubling down on drilling is not particularly surprising. Much of Louisiana’s much-needed revenue comes from off-shore drilling leases. “By the same token, after every plane crash, you and I should both oppose plane travel,” Vitter quipped on Sunday to CNN’s Candy Crowley. “I don’t think that is rational.” Even Vitter’s Democratic challenger, Rep. Charlie Melancon, reiterated his support for expanded drilling in the wake of the disaster.
But it’s Vitter’s early support of a liability cap – he introduced legislation that he promoted in last weekend’s weekly GOP radio address – that’s landing the son of a Chevron petroleum engineer in trouble. Local and national Democrats have been pounding Vitter for seeking to limit the amount of legal damages BP would be responsible for to the last four quarters of profit. “Unlike Republicans, Democrats are not going to protect BP – and given their track record, we are certainly not going to rely on BP’s word as the only thing ensuring that taxpayers are not left on the hook to pay for the disaster they caused,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said in a statement.
Vitter’s been courting his conservative base since July 2007 when it was revealed that he had been a client of “DC Madam” Deborah Jeane Palfrey. Vitter held a press conference, his wife by his side, where he admitted to “a very serious sin,” though he didn’t detail the sin. In the years since he’s slowly and steadily rebuilt his conservative credentials. He passed an amendment to bar funding for organizations that advocate international gun control policies. He attempted to deny family planning funds to organizations that perform abortions but that failed the Senate 52-41. And he sponsored legislation to require all states to collect DNA samples from convicted felons. Vitter’s also been a strong advocate for President Bush’s tax cuts and, when he ran in 2004 he tied himself closely to Bush – images that are sure to come back to haunt him.
But he’s also practical: Louisiana is not Oklahoma (Coburn) or South Carolina (DeMint). There’s an expectation that every politician – even the first Republican in 121 years to represent The Bayou State in the Senate – bring home the bacon. In fact, when Vitter first ran for his congressional seat, replacing Bob Livingston, he argued that a younger man should be elected – one that can build up Livingston’s seniority over the years. And Vitter has worked hard to bring the state Katrina recovery funds, even sending Bush a hostile letter co-signed by 22 other GOP senators when the President threatened to veto a water resources bill with nearly $3 billion in wetlands and levy funds earmarked for Louisiana.
Vitter leads Melancon comfortably in polls and he’s nearly quadrupled Melcancon’s $2.5 million fundraising haul. But he must now find a way to explain to angry constituents why he wants to limit the damages they might claim from the oil giant in the wake of the growing disaster – a political crack Democrats in Louisiana are looking to force open. After all, in this climate the only thing worse than being on the side of Washington is being on the side of big oil.