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Political fallout for Obama amid oil spill disaster?

By Ed Hornick, CNN
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Oil spill is affecting several Gulf Coast states
  • Rush Limbaugh says this incident is "Obama's Katrina"
  • In early April, Obama announced plans to open offshore oil drilling
  • Democratic senator asks Obama to halt exploratory oil operations

Washington (CNN) -- As the oil slick from the recent offshore oil rig disaster makes its way to Gulf Coast shores -- expected to devastate the precious ecosystem and hurt struggling businesses -- the seeds of political fallout for the Obama administration are beginning to sprout.

Conservative radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh said on his program that the oil slick disaster is "Obama's Katrina."

Not so, says Media Matters for America:

"Media conservatives have rushed to absurdly compare the Obama administration's response to a catastrophic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico to the Bush Administration's botched response after Hurricane Katrina, a hurricane that left more than 1,500 dead," the liberal-leaning group said on its website. "This claim is undermined by a number of facts."

Another Obama critic, Joe Weisenthal of BusinessInsider.com, wrote Thursday, "Today the story got elevated to national emergency level, but the explosion on the rig happened eight days ago!"

White House Senior Adviser David Axelrod told ABC news Friday: "This is always the case in Washington -- that whenever something like this happens, the political speculation sets in."

"The truth of the matter is we had the Coast Guard on the scene almost immediately after this accident. The deputy secretary of the interior was on the ground the next day, and we've been coordinating closely with the local authorities and [BP officials] from the very beginning."

Axelrod said that no additional offshore oil drilling has been authorized and "none will until we find out what happened here and whether there was something unique and preventable here."

On April 20, the Deepwater Horizon rig was ripped by an explosion that burned for two days until the rig sank. Eleven missing men are presumed dead.

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State and local officials are now scrambling to avert further natural disaster, which is threatening to surpass the Exxon Valdez disaster 20 years ago in Alaska. In addition, several governmental agencies -- along with the U.S. military -- are aiding the effort.

Several top administration figures were also sent to the region Friday.

Speaking at the White House Friday, Obama emphasized that BP -- the company that owns the rig -- is legally responsible for paying the costs of the response to and cleanup of the spill. Still, he said, "We are fully prepared to meet our responsibilities to any and all affected communities."

In early April, Obama announced plans to pursue the expansion of oil drilling off the nation's coasts, a plan that received praise by Republicans and other administration critics.

Noting that it was not an easy decision to make, Obama said that in order to sustain economic growth, produce jobs and keep businesses competitive, "we're going to need to harness traditional sources of fuel even as we ramp up production of new sources of renewable, homegrown energy."

Some Democrats and environmentalists ripped into Obama's decision at the time.

Now, with the oil leaking at a high rate, Obama's critics are once again calling on him to kill offshore drilling.

Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Florida, asked Obama in a letter Thursday to halt exploratory oil operations in coastal waters.

Nelson said in the letter that the potential environmental and economic damage from the current spill required immediate preventive actions until the cause is discovered -- adding that "until we learn what happened, I'm asking that you also call for an immediate halt of test wells and all other exploratory operations in coastal waters."

Nelson also said he would file legislation "that would, for the time being, prohibit the Interior Department from acting on your administration's plans to expand offshore drilling, including seismic testing and other exploratory operations."

On Friday, Obama told reporters in the White House Rose Garden that domestic oil production continues to be "an important part of our overall strategy" but said "it must be done responsibly for the safety of our workers and our environment."

Obama also ordered Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to "report back to me in 30 days" on any "precautions in technologies" needed to prevent such accidents in the future.

"We're going to make sure that any leases going forward have those safeguards," Obama said. "We've also dispatched teams to the Gulf Coast to inspect all deep-water rigs and platforms to address safety concerns."

The oil slick disaster could also stall a climate change bill from moving forward.

The House passed its version last year. The Senate's version was supposed to be introduced this week -- but was derailed by Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, a key sponsor of the bill, pulling his support.

The proposed Senate bill included provisions for offshore drilling -- something sponsors hoped would bring enough Republicans on board to support the bill.

Political observers say Democrats will likely have a hard time supporting a bill with offshore drilling components in it. Those who represent states with coastlines will undoubtedly face pressure coming from constituents as the midterm election nears.

 
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