U.S. Representative Joe Barton may be the only person who had a worse day on Capitol Hill yesterday than BP Plc Chief Executive Officer Tony Hayward.
The Texas Republican sparked a political backlash from both parties when he apologized to Hayward -- at a hearing where other lawmakers lined up to berate BP -- and accused the White House of a “shakedown” by pressuring BP to set aside $20 billion for damage claims from the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.
Barton retracted his comments hours later after a meeting with House Minority Leader John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, and House Minority Whip Eric Cantor, a Virginia Republican. The party leaders told Barton to apologize immediately or lose his position as ranking Republican on the Energy and Commerce Committee, said a party leadership aide who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The outcry illustrates Republicans’ difficulty in gaining political ground, even during a low period for President Barack Obama, as the party struggles to conquer internal divisions, said Julian Zelizer, a political science professor at Princeton University in New Jersey.
“The Republican Party is not totally united on what its message should be,” Zelizer said in an interview yesterday. “It’s the Tea Party-versus-leadership tension that we’ve seen on other issues.”
The flap began at a hearing by the Energy and Commerce panel on the Gulf of Mexico spill. Lawmakers denounced Hayward for hours, accusing him of stonewalling and failing to provide answers about the causes of the explosion.
Barton, though, at the hearing’s beginning apologized to Hayward. The congressman described the claims fund BP agreed to establish after its top officials met with Obama on June 16 as “a $20 billion shakedown.”
“I’m ashamed of what happened in the White House,” Barton, 60, told Hayward at the hearing, and later said, “I apologize” for it.
Less than six hours later, Boehner’s office released a statement by Barton in which he retracted his apology to BP and apologized “for using the term ‘shakedown.’”
Boehner’s office also issued a separate statement from the Republican leader, Cantor and Representative Mike Pence, an Indiana Republican, calling Barton’s statements at the hearing “wrong.”
Barton’s statement said he regretted “the impact that my statement this morning implied that BP should not pay for the consequences of their decisions and actions in this incident.”
The comments by Barton, who was first elected to his Dallas-area House seat in 1984, inflamed Gulf Coast Republicans, who are outraged at BP for failing to plug the leaking well.
“I don’t think we need to be apologizing to British Petroleum,” said Florida Republican Senator George LeMieux.
Representative Jeff Miller, a Florida Republican, said in a statement yesterday that Barton’s comments “call into question his judgment and ability to serve” in a leadership position on the Energy and Commerce Committee.
Representative Jo Bonner, an Alabama Republican, today called for Barton’s resignation from the job, saying the Texan’s remarks were “stupid and extremely insensitive” to Gulf Coast residents.
Other fiscally conservative Republicans have criticized the BP agreement with the Obama administration. And Kentucky Republican Senate candidate Rand Paul today expressed sympathies for Barton in an interview with a radio station.
“I have never liked the tone of the president when he said things or his administration says things like he is going to put the boot on the throat of BP,” he said on Lexington, Kentucky-based WVLK-AM.
Georgia Republican Representative Tom Price, in a statement yesterday, said Obama’s insistence on creating an escrow fund was an example of his administration “exerting its brand of Chicago-style shakedown politics.”
Representative Michele Bachmann, a Minnesota Republican, criticized the idea of an escrow fund as a “redistribution-of-wealth” fund at a Heritage Foundation forum this week.
Former Representative Dick Armey of Texas, a Republican and a leading funder of the Tea Party movement, said at a meeting this week with reporters that Obama lacked the constitutional authority to set up such a fund.
“They’re trying to make an anti-Obama, anti-Democratic point out of this recent announcement, but I think it’s risky to Republicans,” said Zelizer.
Employees of the oil and gas industry have been Barton’s largest source of campaign cash since 1989, giving him $1.4 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington-based research group. That’s more than any other House member has gotten from the industry. He has raised $100,470 from oil and gas industry employees for his 2010 re-election campaign.
Democrats immediately seized on Barton’s statements, seeing an opportunity to score political points months before the November elections.
“When people in the Gulf are suffering from actions taken by BP, Republicans in Congress are apologizing to BP,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told reporters, referring to the statements by Barton and Price.
Jon Vogel, executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, used the comments in an e-mail fundraising appeal, telling supporters that their donations would “send an overwhelming message” that Republicans “shamelessly shill for their Big Oil backers.”
Vice President Joe Biden called Barton’s remarks “incredibly insensitive, incredibly out-of-touch.”
“There’s no shakedown,” the vice president said at a White House briefing. “It’s insisting on responsible conduct and a responsible response to something they caused.”