Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX), the ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, went out on a limb today to do something maybe no other American would think to do: He apologized to BP for having to put $20 billion into a fund for Gulf spill damages. Only Barton called it a “slush fund” and a “shakedown.”
Barton’s apology to BP led at first to a delicate dance, as some Republicans tried to move away from the so obviously toxic statements without outright condemning Barton, and later a full court press as Republican leaders publicly called Barton’s comments “wrong.”
The leaders reportedly gave him an ultimatum: “Apologize, immediately. Or you will lose your position, immediately.”
Eventually, Barton, who would become the energy committee’s chairman should the Republicans take the House this fall, said he was sorry. He first apologized if anyone had “misconstrued” his statement, and shortly after apologized for using the word “shakedown” and retracted his original apology (to BP, that is).
Nonetheless, House GOP leaders came down on Barton hard.
“The oil spill in the Gulf is this nation’s largest natural disaster and stopping the leak and cleaning up the region is our top priority. Congressman Barton’s statements this morning were wrong,” House GOP leaders John Boehner, Eric Cantor and Mike Pence said in a statement.
It’s worth nothing that the leaders have not condemned a statement put out yesterday by the Republican Study Committee, a conservative bloc of more than 100 House members led by Rep. Tom Price (R-GA), that called the escrow account a “Chicago-style political shakedown.” Nor has the RSC apologized. However, by Thursday evening the release appeared to have been removed from the RSC’s site, replaced with the message “We are sorry, but this document is not published.”
Boehner told reporters earlier today that he disagrees with Barton’s characterization of the government’s response. He also said he’s “glad” BP is “being held accountable.”
NRSC chairman Sen. John Cornyn said he “shares” Barton’s concern that “this has really become a political issue for the President and he’s trying to deal with it by showing how tough he’s being against BP.”
But he also said “it’s comforting to know that there will be resources set aside.”
Rep. Mike Burgess (R-TX), the ranking member of the energy subcommittee on oversight which held today’s hearing, took a thinly veiled shot at Barton later in the hearing, after Barton’s apology to BP. Burgess told Hayward he wouldn’t be apologizing. “I don’t feel apologies are in order,” he said. Asked by a cable news reporter, however, Burgess said he couldn’t comment on Barton’s remarks.
One Republican Congressman — one whose Pensacola district has been hit hard by the oil leak — took no pains to mince words.
“His comments call into question his judgment and ability to serve in a leadership on the Energy and Commerce Committee,” said Rep. Jeff Miller (R-FL). “He should step down as Ranking Member of the Committee.”
Miller is a member of the RSC, which released the statement yesterday calling the escrow fund a “Chicago-style political shakedown.”
The RSC’s statement attracted much less attention than Barton’s. Miller, for one, attributed that to Barton’s outright apologizing to BP: “There’s a little bit of distinction,” Miller’s spokesman told TPM.
Democrats, of course, had a field day with Barton. White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs put out a statement almost immediately calling Barton’s comments “shameful,” and Vice President Biden called them “outrageous.” The DCCC bought ads on Facebook capitalizing on the incident almost immediately.