WASHINGTON — The oil slick has reached Capitol Hill.
As Florida and other gulf states struggle with the environmental and economic consequences, political momentum for additional offshore drilling has dampened considerably in Washington. That has complicated prospects for a sweeping climate and energy bill.
"In addition to being a terrible tragedy it now becomes a real political disaster," said Guy Caruso, an expert with the bipartisan Center For Strategic & International Studies.
"It all depends on how soon can the oil leak be stopped," said Bob Ebel, another expert at the center in Washington. "If enough hits land and damages the fishing and tourism industry, it could be a game changer. There's a lot of ifs still out there."
The energy debate has been long and contentious and had been nearing an end in the Senate (the House long ago passed its version). "Drill here, drill now" forces secured a place at the table with a plan by President Barack Obama that included opening up waters off the East Coast and Florida's Gulf Coast.
Then, two weeks ago, oil started gushing from the British Petroleum-leased rig in the Gulf of Mexico, a rust-colored wave shown repeatedly on national TV. The instant calculus: The drilling debate is imperiled.
"You have people up and down the Gulf Coast that are in an absolute panic right now. Do you not think that's not going to translate through to members of Congress?" asked Florida Sen. Bill Nelson.
"This highlights the fact that America's energy policy is outdated," said Rep. Kathy Castor, a Tampa Democrat who opposed Obama's plan and is hopeful the spill will force a deeper discussion of alternative energy and conservation.
"You hate to be proven right," Castor said. "It's a wake-up call."
Obama and others have called for an end to drilling while the BP disaster is investigated.
But so far there has not been a definitive retreat in Washington, despite flashes of outrage from lawmakers like Nelson and Castor.
In fact, some Democrats from oil-dependent states and Republicans have begun to push back against calls to take drilling off the table. Indiana Rep. Mike Pence, a top Republican, gave a speech on the House floor Wednesday accusing some of exploiting "this ongoing disaster to deny the American people more access to American oil."
"But the American people know better," he added.
A Zogby poll released Tuesday showed 63 percent of likely voters supporting the Obama administration's plans to allow for expansion of offshore drilling in the Atlantic Ocean. The same size majority also agreed with the decision to suspend those plans pending an investigation of conditions that led to the current spill.
In Virginia, some lawmakers are reconsidering their stance while Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell said the accident, while tragic, will not stop him from trying to make his state the first on the East Coast to drill for oil and natural gas. Environmentalists plan a rally later this week to pressure McDonnell to change his mind.
Florida Gov. Charlie Crist has pulled his support as has California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. But in Washington, the architects of the energy bill are not ready to give up.
"There were good reasons for us to put in offshore drilling, and this terrible accident is very rare in drilling," Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., one of the authors of the climate bill, told reporters Tuesday. "Accidents happen. You learn from them and you try to make sure they don't happen again."
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said, "We didn't give up human space flight after the Challenger tragedy nor should we give up domestic exploration and development of oil and gas."
Sen. John Kerry, the Massachusetts Democrat leading the talks, met privately with coastal lawmakers on Tuesday and sought to assure them that tougher safeguards could be added.
The Obama administration has been noncommittal, saying it is waiting for a 30-day review.
As many predictions as there are that the energy bill will languish, some suggested its chances only got better. They think Obama has a big opportunity to garner public support for the legislation, which aims to reduce carbon emissions in addition to diversifying the nation's energy portfolio.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said the ugly footage from the gulf spill could give rise to "clean energy" sources such as wind and solar.
The legislation also includes an expansion of nuclear energy, which like oil today has been a political flashpoint, cleaner coal and additional exploration for natural gas.
"I think (the spill) makes people reconsider that there is no such thing as 'too safe to drill' and that at the end of the day, that there's a lot of other things that were attracting interest," said Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J.
Still, experts note that some of those alternative energy sources are still unproven and would take time to develop. Meanwhile, the United States maintains its thirst for oil, for which in the near term there is no widely available alternative.
Nelson still thinks the spill has dashed Obama's plan for more offshore drilling, calling it "dead on arrival." The Florida Democrat said he has gone up to pro-drilling colleagues in recent days and sarcastically whispered, "drill, baby, drill."
Their response, he said, is to "roll their eyes as if in mock horror at the possibilities of what could happen as a result of this disaster."
Alex Leary can be reached at email@example.com.