A Texas Republican's apology to BP CEO Tony Hayward that the company had to agree to a $20 billion fund for oil spill damage claims nearly cost him a key House committee position on Thursday.
Rep. Joe Barton was forced to recant by House minority leaders outraged at the vision of an American lawmaker apologizing at a congressional hearing to a foreign head of a corporation that had caused great hardships for millions of Gulf Coast residents.
"I'm speaking totally for myself, I'm not speaking for the Republican party ... but I'm ashamed of what happened in the White House yesterday," Barton had told Hayward during opening statements before the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on investigations.
He called it "a tragedy of the first proportion, that a private corporation can be subjected to what I would characterize as a shakedown, a $20 billion shakedown."
Barton's point was that BP should pay for damage claims but should be allowed to follow the "due process and fairness" of the American legal system. But the ensuing gusher of criticism that flowed forced Barton to apologize for the apology.
GOP leaders summoned Barton to the Capitol and demanded he apologize in specific terms. The leaders threatened to launch a process to strip Barton of his position as ranking Republican on the powerful panel, according to two Republican officials who demanded anonymity.
As Barton returned to the committee, the leaders issued their own statement: "Congressman Barton's statements this morning were wrong."
By midafternoon, Barton was back on the dais with a statement that was something short of what the leaders had demanded.
"I want the record to be absolutely clear that I think BP is responsible for this accident," he said. "If anything I said this morning has been misconstrued, in opposite effect, I want to apologize for that misconstruction."
Barton then issued, and House Republican leader John Boehner's office forwarded out, a somewhat different written statement.
"I apologize for using the term 'shakedown' with regard to yesterday's actions at the White House this morning, and I retract my apology to BP," it began, and finished: "I regret the impact that my statement this morning implied that BP should not pay for the consequences of their decisions and actions in this incident."
Democrats were quick to pounce on Barton's initial comments. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs denounced him and called on members of both parties to repudiate his comments.
"What is shameful is that Joe Barton seems to have more concern for big corporations that caused this disaster than the fishermen, small business owners and communities whose lives have been devastated by the destruction," said Gibbs.
Vice President Joe Biden said Barton's comments were "incredibly insensitive, incredibly out of touch."
Attorney General Eric Holder defended the escrow deal at a news conference.
"Let me be clear: I don't apologize for the Justice Department's role in this matter. And I don't apologize for the way in which this administration has approached this question," he said. "We have dealt with this issue I think in a tough way, to ensure that Americans who did no wrong will be compensated, that we do all that we can to protect our environment and that not a penny comes from American taxpayers to do both of those things. So I think what we have done has been entirely appropriate."
Other Republicans weigh in
But Barton is not alone among Republicans on his initial statement.
At the hearing Thursday, Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Texas, returned to the propriety of the $20 billion escrow fund: "I have serious questions about the setup of this fund."
Another member of the GOP leadership, Rep. Tom Price of Georgia, chairman of the Republican Study Committee, a group of conservative House members, used the same "shakedown" language Wednesday in describing the escrow fund.
"BP's reported willingness to go along with the White House's new fund suggests that the Obama Administration is hard at work exerting its brand of Chicago-style shakedown politics," Price said in a statement.
He said the White House does not have the legal authority to compel a private company to set up and fund an escrow account.
"These actions are emblematic of a politicization of our economy that has been borne out of this administration's drive for greater power and control," Price said.
Former Texas Rep. Dick Armey, a leading voice in the conservative Tea Party movement, told a Christian Science Monitor breakfast this week that Obama lacks the constitutional authority to set up such a fund.
"The Constitution doesn't give that authority to the executive branch.... There are courts for this purpose," Armey said, according to the Dallas Morning News.
In addition, conservative Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota was quoted as telling the Heritage Foundation think tank Tuesday that the escrow account was a "redistribution-of-wealth fund."
"And now it appears like we'll be looking at one more gateway for more government control, more money to government," she said, according to the Minnesota Independent.
Big Oil contributions
Barton is the biggest recipient of oil and gas industry campaign contributions in the House of Representatives, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.
Its data showed that Barton has collected $1,447,880 from political action committees and individuals connected with the oil and gas industry since 1989.
Federal Election Commission records show that during the current 2009-10 campaign cycle, the oil and gas industry has been the second-biggest contributor to Barton, at $100,470, behind only the electric utility industry ($162,800).
BP, however, has not been especially generous. FEC records show that the company isn't even among his 100 top contributors — in fact, since 1990, it has given Barton an average of only $1,350 a year.
Public Campaign, which calls itself a nonpartisan advocate for reducing campaign costs, said its analysis shows that he has received $27,000 in contributions from BP since taking office in 1985.