Washington Watch for Dec. 23, 2012

Plenty left on agenda in D.C.

It’s Christmas time and the “fiscal cliff” is still looming.

Congress has not yet learned the spirit of the holidays. So instead of buying a plump goose, it’s a “Bah humbug” and tax hikes for Tiny Tim’s family — if they lived in the U.S. — and everyone else who pays taxes.

The fiscal cliff involves $500 billion in tax hikes and across-the-board budget cuts in defense and non-discretionary spending that will slowly begin to take place on Jan. 1 unless Congress acts.

But, even though we may temporarily fall over the cliff, few expect the full tax increases and spending cuts to go into effect, although tax hikes for households making at least $400,000 a year are appearing likely.

The political posturing may continue for a little while longer, but any true doomsday scenario is unlikely.

Apart from the fiscal cliff fighting, there are other decisions potentially being made in early January that could have substantial impacts on southeastern Louisiana.

The biggest issue involves ongoing civil penalty settlement talks between BP and the U.S. Department of Justice. If no settlement is reached soon, the oft-delayed case could begin a lengthy trial as soon as February.

The 2010 Deepwater Horizon tragedy killed 11 men, and resulted in a three-month discharge of 4.9 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Louisiana.

This past summer, President Barack Obama signed into law the RESTORE Act legislation that directs 80 percent of the Clean Water Act fines to the five states affected by the spill, an amount that could reach $20 billion.

Any Justice Department-BP settlement could operate within the framework of the RESTORE Act, but that has been debated and is up in the air.

Last month, the two parties reached a criminal settlement that involves BP paying $4.5 billion in penalties and fines, including a $1.25 billion criminal fine. But the civil fines represent the potentially much larger shoe waiting to drop.

If no settlement is reached soon, it could take another year or more to work through a trial and the ultimate fine amounts that Louisiana and the other affected states will receive for coastal restoration and other efforts.

Anonymous Internet trolling is another key issue that is expected to start making major headway in January.

It just so happens that the anonymous Internet voices commenting on pending federal prosecution cases are no longer anonymous. Now we know those online voices came from high-ranking officials within the Eastern District of Louisiana U.S. Attorney’s Office in New Orleans.

As a result, those employees are now gone, as is popular U.S. Attorney Jim Letten, who resigned earlier this month as the nation’s longest-serving U.S. attorney under both former President George W. Bush and Obama.

The focus now rests on U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., whose office is in charge of vetting and nominating her top three replacement choices to Obama. Those recommendations could come as soon as January after the state’s senior senator has sifted through a pool of 15 or so top contenders for the job. The only nearly assured given is the nominees all will be Democrats to replace the Republican Letten.

Plenty of names have been publicly floated. Among them are, in no particular order, New Orleans attorney and state Civil Service Commissioner Kenneth Polite Jr., Louisiana Democratic Party Chairwoman Karen Carter Peterson, Phelps Dunbar firm lawyer Kim Boyle, Orleans Parish Civil District Court Clerk Dale Atkins, New Orleans District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro, Municipal Court Judge Desiree Charbonnet; District Judge Keva Landrum-Johnson, Jones Walker firm partner Pauline Hardin, Phelps Dunbar partner Allen Miller, District Court Judge Karen Herman, attorney and former prosecutor Steven Gonzalez and Entergy New Orleans CEO Charles Rice.

State Sen. Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge, has even gotten in on the act with an outside-the-box recommendation of his own in John Clint Williamson. The Ruston native previously served as the U.S. ambassador-at-large for war crimes issues and he has most recently worked as a special prosecutor for the European Union and trafficking and war crimes issues. Williamson and Claitor years ago worked together as assistant prosecutors in New Orleans.

Jordan Blum is chief of The Advocate Washington bureau. His email address is jblum@theadvocate.com.