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Administration Builds Public Case to Hold BP Accountable for Spill

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Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano addresses a news conference on April 30 at the command center in Robert, La. (AP Photo)

The Obama administration is in an all-out push to make clear to the public and to Congress that British Petroleum is on the hook for cleaning up the gushing oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, placing the onus for fixing the disaster squarely on the company even as it mobilizes federal resources to help. 

Some lawmakers have called for the administration to step up its efforts in the Gulf and for the finger-pointing to stop, but top federal officials are not letting up on their criticism. 

Pushing back on suggestions that the administration was somehow slow to respond, President Obama and his team are bellowing the argument that their resources were in place from "day one" and that BP must see this crisis through to the end. 

"BP is the responsible party. They're the cause of this spill," White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said Tuesday. "They will pay for this leak." 

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson and other top officials briefed members of Congress on Capitol Hill Tuesday on the spill. 

Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., came out of the meeting unhappy with the Obama administration officials.

"It seems to me they haven't gotten the wake-up call," he said.

Sen. George LeMieux, R-Fla., said "now is not the time to fault the administration or BP for what the could have or should have done."

"The number one thing we have to do now to avoid a further environmental and economic disaster for the Gulf region is to stop the spill," LeMieux said in a written statement. "Right now is the time to have every available resource and all sense of urgency possible to keep this from growing."

In public, the administration has tried to strike a balance -- between offering assurances that the Coast Guard, the Navy, the National Guard and other federal assets will "spare no effort" in responding to the spill and insisting that BP, not the federal government, should ultimately be held accountable. 

They have deflected comparisons between their handling of the spill and the Bush administration's handling of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. There are several key differences -- in the case of the oil spill, there have been no casualties since the initial explosion which killed 11; the government had no advance warning of the disaster; and, unlike with Katrina, there is a private company that by law can be blamed. 

The 20-year-old Oil Pollution Act would make BP responsible for paying for the cleanup costs. There have been questions raised about another part of the law that caps their liability at $75 million for other economic damages. Gibbs conceded Tuesday that the damages could easily top $75 million. A handful of senators, though, have introduced a bill to raise the cap to $10 billion, which the administration supported. 

But some have challenged the administration's statements, saying that while BP obviously is responsible, the spill demands a robust federal response. FEMA's mission statement describes "a hazardous spill" as one of the many disasters it is charged with containing. 

Sen. David Vitter, R-La., said in a statement Friday that "BP is spread too thin" and urged federal and state officials to oversee efforts to protect and clean the coast while allowing BP to focus solely on capping the leak and creating a relief well to plug it. 

Administration officials contend they are doing their part. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has said in several interviews that the federal government had dozens of vessels in place and is providing hundreds of thousands of feet of boom. 

The Pentagon reportedly has approved requests to fund National Guard troops in three Gulf Coast states to respond to the disaster. Officials said over the weekend that oversight responsibility falls primarily on the Coast Guard. 

With officials estimating that the leak could take three months to permanently plug and local fisherman and other workers poised to suffer huge economic damages, senators on Tuesday urged all sides to cool the rhetoric. 

"There's going to be plenty of time to assign blame, but what we need to be focused on right now is how we contain the devastation, how we contain and capture the spill at the sea bed, how we deal with the released oil on the surface, to make sure that we have all assets deployed that are absolutely possible," Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said Tuesday.