West Wing briefing

Congressional Republicans seize on oil spill crisis to attack Obama

This shows 24 hours of accelerated video, beginning at 1 pm CDT Wednesday, from the site of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Video Courtesy of BP.
By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 4, 2010; 9:26 AM

As President Obama heads to the Gulf Friday for his third oil-spill visit, his most ardent critics back in Washington will be stirring up trouble.

From their perch in Congress, members of the opposing party have seized on the oil spill crisis as a way to hammer Obama politically, moving aggressively to question the president's response to the environmental disaster.

The most recent salvo came late Thursday night, as Rep. Darrell Issa of California provided copies of Coast Guard logs to the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit organization dedicated to investigative journalism. The center used the information in the logs -- and a damning quote from Issa -- to post a story on its Web site: "Coast Guard Logs Show Feds Understood Oil Spill Threat Within Hours of Explosion."

The story suggests that the Coast Guard had reason to believe the environmental damage could be massive almost from the start.

(Photos of the Gulf oil spill's animal victims)

"Potential environmental threat is 700,000 gallons of diesel on board the Deepwater Horizon and estimated potential of 8,000 barrels per day of crude oil, if the well were to completely blowout," the center quotes one of the logs from the Coast Guard as saying on April 21, less than a day after the accident.

The center notes the difference between the logs and the official White House timeline, which provided far less of a sense of the looming environmental threat until several days later.

Why is that important?

Crises often prompt investigations and recriminations in Washington. And once-secret documents are typically the thing that drives the conversation along, providing members of one party the ammunition to criticize the other.

For the past several weeks, much of the debate in the capital has centered on whether the president and his team reacted quickly enough to the threat of the oil gushing from the bottom of the ocean floor.

White House officials have consistently said the president made the accident his No. 1 priority, and the center quoted a spokesman as telling the New York Times Thursday night that the official White House timeline had a disclaimer at the bottom that it did not reflect everything that was being done.

Republicans seemed poised to leap on the logs as evidence that the White House moved too slowly, at least at the beginning. Issa told the center that "Americans have a right to be outraged by this spill, by top government officials caught off-guard, and by the facts the White House omitted in explaining what it knew and when it knew it."

But Issa is regarded in Washington as an automatic anti-Obama quote, and the fact that the documents come from him could undermine their impact.

And the other news out of the Gulf appeared to be getting better, not worse, as engineers successfully cut off a piece of the broken equipment and were preparing to try and cap the oil leak so that the crude could be sucked up to the surface.

If those efforts succeed -- and there have been a lot of failures so far -- the president will likely benefit from the positive developments.

On the other hand, the cleanup of the Gulf is going to take a long time, perhaps years, as White House press secretary Robert Gibbs suggested Thursday. That means there will be plenty of time for questions about who knew what, when.

Expect the Republicans to continue to ask them.

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