Today the Energy and Commerce Committee is grilling CEOs from the nation's top five oil companies, to be followed by even more smoke and fire on Thursday when BP CEO Tony Hayward takes the hot seat for the first time. The Committee, led by Congressman Henry Waxman (D-CA), has honed in on five "serious questions" about potential screw-ups aboard the rig. But a story that I've published today suggests that Congressional investigators should add a sixth line of questioning: Did BP's rig pass a key safety test—or not?

Spokesman for BP, Halliburton, and Transocean won't talk to me. If I had the chance, here's what I'd ask them:

  1. BP has given conflicting statements about how many negative pressure tests—key procedures that test the integrity of the well casings—were performed aboard the Deepwater Horizon before the explosion. At times, the company has suggested that two tests were performed, and at other times that three or more "pressure tests" were performed. So what is BP's official position?
  2. Halliburton service supervisor Christopher Haire has testified that workers on the rig floor, where the platform's drilling equipment was set up, told him that a third test was performed. But Haire's attorney says his pressure gauges indicated that a third test never took place. This suggests that a third test might have been done improperly or even fabricated. If BP still maintains that a third test was performed, what evidence does it have that a third test took place?
  3. Halliburton has released results for only two negative pressure tests. What was the result of the third test?
  4. Were the results of the negative pressure tests approved by BP's US headquarters in Houston? If so, why were they approved when BP has acknowledged that the results of the first two tests were unsatisfactory?
  5. Several rig workers have described a confrontation between Transocean's rig installation manager, Jimmy Harrell, and BP officials aboard the rig on the day of the disaster. While Harrell has downplayed the conflict, other workers have suggested that BP was ignoring his safety concerns. Exactly what transpired during this conflict?


Things still aren't looking good for House Democrats this fall. A new NPR poll estimates that losses in the House could "well exceed 30 seats." Via the New Republic's Jonathan Chait, polling firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, which helped conduct the poll, explains:

In the named-congressional ballot in the 60 Democratic districts, Democrats trail their Republican opponent, 42 to 47 percent, with only a third saying they want to vote to-relect their member. In the top tier of 30 most competitive seats, the Democratic candidate trails by 9 points (39 to 48 percent) and by 2 points in the next tier of 30 seats (45 to 47 percent). On the other hand, the Republican candidates are running well ahead in their most competitive seats ( 53 to 37 percent). As we saw in the special election in PA-12, Democrats will have to battle on a seat-by-seat basis — that has shifted these kinds of numbers this year. 

The effort by individual campaigns will have to push against walls that seem very hard to move at this point. We tested Democratic and Republican arguments on the economy, health care, financial reform and the big picture for the 2010 election. The results consistently favored the Republicans and closely resembled the vote breakdown. Democrats are hurt by a combined lack of enthusiasm and an anti-incumbent tone.

As stark as these findings seem, they shouldn't come as a surprise. Earlier predictions had pegged Democratic losses in the House at 30 to 40 seats this year, as election prognosticator Charlie Cook has estimated. Nevertheless, it will be discouraging to Democrats that the basic trendlines for this midterm elections haven't changed very much. 

There is one curious footnote to the poll's main findings: President Obama's approval rating is actually higher in the Republican districts where he beat McCain in 2008 (48 percent) than in traditional Democratic districts (40 percent). It's been the plan all along for the Democratic Party to deploy Obama's grassroots army--Organizing for America, now part of the Democratic National Committee--in swing districts to persuade Obama voters in 2008 to support "the president's allies." The fact that Obama supporters in GOP district are actually more inclined to continue the support the president might make them an easier sell in critical parts of the country.

Via Politico:

Gen. David Petraeus collapsed in his chair under intense questioning from the leaders of the Senate Armed Services Committee Tuesday.

Petraeus, the commander of U.S. Central Command, was immediately surrounded by advisors including Michele Flournoy, the Pentagon’s deputy under secretary for policy, who was testifying with him. Petraeus is known for his superior fitness level; he was escorted out of the hearing room, pale and looking downward.

Several minutes later, Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) returned to the room to say that Petraeus was feeling much better and probably just didn’t drink enough water before coming to the hearing. Levin said there would soon be a decision about whether the hearing would continue.

Petraeus’s collapse came just as Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) was wrapping up a pointed round of questions about his support for the president's plan to start withdrawing troops from Afghanistan in July 2011. 

"It wasn’t Senator McCain’s questions, I assure you," Petraeus quipped when he returned to the hearing room. Though Petraeus said he was fine and seemed intent on continuing his testimony, Levin has postponed the hearing until tomorrow.

The boycotts were just the beginning. Arizona’s harsh immigration law—set to go into effect on July 29—could have a far-reaching impact on the state’s economy. Economists and real estate analysts in the state are now predicting that the law could end up hurting the already battered housing market in areas like Phoenix, where foreclosures hit a record high in March. From The Arizona Republic:

An exodus of people—both legal and illegal residents—could be one more drag on a housing-market recovery. Departures from a state where growth is the economic foundation could add to the number of foreclosures and vacant houses and apartments, all of which will hurt the housing industry just as signs of recovery are starting to appear.

Driving illegal immigrants out of Arizona is one stated purpose of the new immigration law. But the law, experts say, could also drive out legal residents and deter potential new residents - people who are afraid of what might happen to them or who simply object to the law.

There's a misconception among some Arizona residents that illegal immigrants don't own homes in the state. Housing advocates say thousands if not tens of thousands of people who are not legal residents have purchased houses here…

"The immigration law just piles onto our problems," said Brett Barry, a Phoenix real-estate agent with HomeSmart. "We are already struggling to find the jobs and keep the schools open to entice new residents."

And there are reports that the exodus has begun: Arizona school officials say that illegal immigrant families with school-age children are already fleeing the state. Given the climate of fear and uncertainty surrounding the new law, it’s not surprising that both legal and illegal residents are leaving for fear of being persecuted and treated like second-class citizens. And it's the state's recession-hammered economy that could bear the brunt of their departure.

The top executives of five of the country's biggest oil companies will testify to Congress today about the safety of drilling, in light of the Gulf disaster. I'll be live-Tweeting the hearing, which you can follow below.

Appearing at the hearing will be BP America President Lamar McKay, as well as Rex Tillerson, chairman and CEO of ExxonMobil; John Watson, chairman and CEO of Chevron Corporation; James Mulva, chairman and CEO of ConocoPhillips; and Marvin Odum, president of Shell Oil Company.


US Army Sgt. Joshua Adkins from Williamsville, N.Y., helps Spc. Julius Thomas from Grandview, Mo., attached to the Guardians Maneuver Element, 17th Fires Brigade get his equipment on during a patrol in Basra, Iraq, on June 4. Photo via the US Army.

There have been plenty of awesomely bad political commercials already this year, from the Obamacare dermatologist-executioner to the English-only driver's test guy to the evolution-hatin' gubernatorial slugfest to this heavily armed simulacrum of Sam Shepard on methamphetamines. But, barring the rollout of a Sarah Palin-themed TV station, I believe we can declare winners for the funniest, saddest, and scariest political spot on television. And they're all the same commercial.

That is dark-horse Tea Party candidate and Islam antagonist Rick Barber, running for Congress in Alabama's 2nd District, having a conversation around a bar table with a deringer pistol and couple of guys gussied up like the founding fathers Sam Adams, George Washington, and Ben Franklin. Barber starts in by saying: "...And I would impeach him. And if that's not enough, some of you men owned taverns. Sam, you were a brewer; Mr. President, a distiller. You know how tough it is to run a small business without a tyrannical government on your back...(30 seconds of anti-IRS chat)...You men revolted over a tea tax. A TEA TAX. NOW look at us!"

South Carolina's Senate primary is drawing increasing scrutiny as officials are still struggling to explain Alvin Greene’s upset victory. But despite the mounting pressure and attacks on his campaign, Greene has adamantly refused to drop out of the race—and tells Mother Jones that he expects the Democratic Party to get behind him.

"I still need the Democratic Party’s support and leadership. I should be treated like every other nominee," Greene said on Monday, when asked whether he had received any campaign contributions since he won the primary last week. Green added that he had "some folks helping me" with campaigning, though he declined to specify who those individuals were.

Greene, who has given an increasingly bizarre series of interviews to the national media, indicates that he's trying to sharpen his campaign rhetoric. "I'm the best candidate in the US race for Senate," Greene said. “Hold on, let me get this right—I’m the best candidate in the United States race in South Carolina. And let’s stop my opponent and the Republicans from reversing forward progress in South Carolina.”

When asked about the attempts by his primary opponent Vic Rawl to contest the results of the election, Greene cut me off and hung up the phone.

Earlier on Monday, Rawl filed a protest with the South Carolina Democratic Party demanding an investigation of the results. A statement from Rawl said there was "a cloud over Tuesday election," alleging that early analysis had indicated "irregularities" and that the campaign had received reports of "extremely unusual incidents" at the polls.

Congressional investigators released new documents Monday outlining "serious questions" that have been raised in their probe of the events leading up to the BP oil disaster. In a lengthy letter to BP CEO Tony Hayward, Reps. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) outline numerous questions raised by evidence they have turned up about the possible causes of the blowout on April 20, advising Hayward that he should be prepared to respond to when he appears before the committee on Thursday.

The letter notes that, on April 15, five days before the explosion, BP's drilling engineer referred to the well they were drilling as a "nightmare well." "In spite of the well's difficulties, BP appears to have made multiple decisions for economic reasons that increased the danger of a catastrophic well failure," write the congressmen. "In several instances, these decisions appear to violate industry guidelines and were made despite warnings from BP's own personnel and its contractors. In effect, it appears that BP repeatedly chose risky procedures in order to reduce costs and save time and made minimal efforts to contain the added risk."

The letter highlights many issues about the operation that have come to light in the past weeks. Exploration at the well was behind schedule, which they note "appears to have created pressure to take shortcuts to speed finishing the well."

The questions focus on five key points, which they note all "posed a trade-off between cost and well safety":

(I) the decision to use a well design with few barriers to gas flow;
(2) the failure to use a sufficient number of "centralizers" to prevent channeling during the cement process;
(3) the failure to run a cement bond log to evaluate the effectiveness of the cement job;
(4) the failure to circulate potentially gas-bearing drilling muds out of the well; and
(5) the failure to secure the wellhead with a lockdown sleeve before allowing pressure on the seal from below.

The Energy and Commerce Committee has posted the letter and all the relevant documents here. The longer explanation of each point is below the jump:

Getting out ahead of President Obama's big speech on energy and the BP oil disaster tomorrow and his meetings with BP executives, top Democrats today sent a letter to the oil giant asking it to create a $20 billion fund to cover damages resulting from the disaster, one that would be administered by an independent trustee. This would be "a useful first step for demonstrating that BP intends to meet its commitments," argued most of the Senate Democratic caucus in a letter to BP CEO Tony Hayward Monday.

The fund, they argue, would "serve as an act of good faith" and would ensure that "there will be no delay in payments or attempts to evade responsibility for damages." Obama, too, has been raising the pressure on BP to create an independently administered fund, though the administration hasn’t given a dollar figure, other than noting BP should allocate a "substantial" sum.

The senators include a jab at BP's big public relations campaign, too:

Congress is currently gathering information and holding hearings in order to develop evidence-based legislative solutions to address the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Although legislative action is forthcoming, the damages are immediate. In order to ensure BP fully and quickly covers the costs of this disaster, we are calling on BP to immediately establish a special account of $20 billion, administered by an independent trustee, to be used for payment of economic damages and clean-up costs. Establishment of this account would serve as an act of good faith and as a first step towards ensuring that there will be no delay in payments or attempt to evade responsibility for damages. Although creating this account at this level in no way limits BP’s liability, we believe it will do more to improve BP’s public image than the costly public relations campaign your company has launched.

The full letter is here.