Commentary by Cynthia Tucker of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

WASHINGTON — It's the time of year when I start to think longingly of my favorite playground — the Florida Panhandle, with its sugary white beaches bordered by the turquoise waters of the Gulf of Mexico. By now, the weather is just right, the water warm, the breezes mild.

Oh, there's one thing I forgot to mention — tar balls. This year, beachgoers might be wading into oily gook generated by the catastrophic oil spill, which is spewing out 5,000 barrels of oil a day. Or 25,000 barrels a day. No one really knows. And no one knows how long it could take to plug the underwater well.

You'd think that a disaster unfolding as we helplessly watch would stir the chilly, polarized waters of Washington politics, perhaps churning up a sense of urgency over energy legislation. If anything illustrates the dangers of our addiction to petroleum, this metastasizing-by-the-minute mess does just that.

But the strange business of politics doesn't work as you might imagine. The Deepwater Horizon explosion seems to have had the opposite effect, blowing up the fragile compromise that seemed the best hope for a Senate bill this year.

John Kerry, D-Mass., Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., spent several months in negotiations attempting to hammer out a proposal that would draw bipartisan support. With a goal of reducing the gases that surround the planet and trap heat, the bill sets up a system for pricing carbon emissions. It aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 17 percent by 2020 and by 83 percent by 2050 (compared to 2005 levels).

It offers significant enticements to lure the support of various industries, including loans for nuclear power plants and incentives for the use of natural gas. It also supports the development of alternative fuels, which would reduce our dependence on petroleum.

But Graham abruptly withdrew from negotiations a few weeks ago, saying the Deepwater Horizon disaster required a "timeout." He noted that the accident has made it more difficult to get Democratic votes for expanded offshore drilling, which he believes is an essential part of any comprehensive energy bill. (After the oil rig explosion, Kerry and Lieberman rewrote portions of the bill dealing with offshore drilling, sharply limiting operations in some areas.) That aside, it's also true that Graham was not having much luck persuading his Republican colleagues to support the bill.

Despite Graham's withdrawal, Kerry insists that the energy bill, which he and Lieberman unveiled earlier this month, "has a huge amount of support. ... Everybody is uncomfortable with a little something, but that's a sign of a good bill." He pointed out that several energy company executives have signed on. So has energy investor T. Boone Pickens, a former archenemy who contributed to the "Swift-boat" ads that helped to sink Kerry's 2004 presidential campaign.

But Kerry's unlikely alliance with Pickens isn't enough. Without Republican votes to end a threatened filibuster, the Senate bill goes nowhere. (The House passed an energy bill last summer.)

Kerry says he believes Graham will back the bill eventually. He also expects industry executives — many of whom see his bill as a preferred alternative to tougher regulations from the Environmental Protection Agency — to persuade Republicans to sign on. "My hope is these groups are going to reach out to their senators," Kerry told me last week.

Meanwhile, on the Florida Panhandle, restaurateurs and innkeepers brace for cancellations. The state's tourism officials are fighting back with a public relations campaign (partly financed by BP) to persuade beachgoers that everything is normal. "We're fighting hysterical hype here as well as the spill," tourism industry spokeswoman Carol Dover told Time magazine.

So far, weather and wind have helped to keep the slick away from Florida's beaches, although experts say oil has already drifted into the Gulf's "loop current," which could carry it around the Keys and northward to Georgia's coast. How bad must it get for our politicians to start reducing the country's dependence on petroleum?

Cynthia Tucker is a political writer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and a nationally syndicated columnist. She can be reached at cynthia@ajc.com.