The next salvo in the tussle over Joe Barton’s apology to BP CEO Tony Hayward will be Democratic pressure on individual House Republicans to join the call for Barton to relinquish his position as the top Republican on the Energy and Commerce Committee.
“The question for every House Republican incumbent and candidate is simple: either stand with the people of the Gulf and American taxpayers or with Joe Barton, the 114 Member Republican Study Committee, and Republican Leadership in their belief that holding British Petroleum accountable is a ‘shakedown’,” says Ryan Rudominer, National Press Secretary for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “For starters, Republicans need to answer whether they think British Petroleum apologist Joe Barton should remain the top Republican on the Energy and Commerce Committee.”
The two parties remain locked in a bitter political fight, which touched off last week when Barton became the face of GOP sympathy for the oil industry, with oil still gushing into the Gulf of Mexico.
Republicans, meanwhile, are doing all they can to contain the fallout. The key to their defense is an ongoing attempt isolate Barton: to characterize what he said as an unfortunate, and inappropriate gaffe, and make him and him alone the face of any ongoing controversy that Democrats can muster.
GOP leaders fanned across the Sunday news shows to castigate Barton, and then try to quickly move the discussion along.
“I couldn’t disagree with Joe Barton more,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell on Fox News Sunday, before rapidly refocusing the conversation on BP’s past contributions to Barack Obama, and trashing the Democrats’ energy agenda.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) suggested that Barton’s inappropriate comments were a distraction
“Let’s not be distracted by saying, you know, Joe Barton made this gaffe or this — this inappropriate comment,” Murkowski said. “Let’s focus on what we need to do, which is getting relief to the Gulf, making sure that they have every asset possible, making sure that we’ve got a claims compensation system that works for them. Let’s focus on providing what the people of the Gulf need, not pointing fingers back and forth and saying, ‘oh, you know, what you said was wrong.’”
On Thursday evening, House GOP leadership offices began furiously leaking accounts of the Republicans’ rapid response to Barton’s comments, all of which emphasized the extent to which leaders scolded Barton, who remains on thin ice. Whether these versions of events are true or not, the clear goal was to cast Barton as a lone villain.
Privately, Democrats acknowledge that their strategy has some risks. Barton could step down, sucking much of the oxygen out of the story. Their challenge would then be to retrain attention on to the other, less-noticed actors in this story: the Republican Study Committee — a group of over 100 conservative House members who released, and have not disavowed, a statement accusing the White House of shaking down BP; Michele Bachmann, who said Obama was redistributing BP’s wealth by pressuring them to set aside money to pay for cleanup and damages from the spill; and Rush Limbaugh, who continues to defend Barton, knowing that Republicans distance themselves from the garrulous talk show host at their peril.
Bachmann’s Democratic rival Tarryl Clark has already unveiled a TV ad using Bachmann’s various defenses and quasi-defenses of BP against her.
For their part, the DCCC already started targeting Republican incumbents in contested districts, along with members of the RSC and the House Conservative Fund (whose members have vowed to “support values consistent with those espoused by the RSC”) to get them on the record regarding the idea that forcing BP to cover damages amounts to a “shakedown.”
Added Rudominer, “The DCCC will continue holding these Republicans accountable for their shameless defense of Big Oil and British Petroleum, which is emblematic of Republicans’ governing philosophy of siding with powerful corporate special interests at the expense of everyone else.”
Brian Beutler is TPM's senior congressional reporter. Since 2009, he's led coverage of health care reform, Wall Street reform, taxes, the GOP budget, the government shutdown fight, and the debt limit fight. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.