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Jones Act: Maritime politics strain Gulf oil spill cleanup

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The news of more foreign ships steaming toward the Gulf also comes amid a heated political debate over the role of the 1920 Jones Act, a protectionist law that prohibits foreign-flagged boats and crews from doing port-to-port duty within 3 miles of the US coast.

On Friday, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R) of Texas filed legislation to waive the Jones Act to welcome more high-tech foreign clean-up boats, saying the Jones Act is standing in the way. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said last week "that we have not had [a] problem" with the Jones Act. At the same time, US marine interests complain that up to 1,500 US-flagged skimmers sit idle, and should be used first. [Editor's note: The original version of this paragraph misspelled the Texas senator's name.]

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"We are still receiving reports of foreign-flagged vessels being turned away or their offers of assistance hanging in limbo. That should not be the case," Sen. George LeMieux (R) of Florida wrote to President Obama Friday. "There is a breakdown of communication and it is critically important the situation get fixed and we see an armada of skimmers at work."

Confusion has steadily built around the exact US skimmer strategy and the role of the 1920 Jones Act. President Bush waived the act temporarily to allow foreign ships to help with the hurricane Katrina relief effort.

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