By Steven Mufson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 18, 2010; A01
The much-anticipated congressional hearing Thursday on the Gulf of Mexico oil spill came down to a single word: Sorry.
In a room packed with cameras and spectators, BP chief executive Tony Hayward said, "I am deeply sorry" for the lost lives and environmental damage from his company's doomed offshore rig.
But the British businessman's apology before the House Energy and Commerce Committee was upstaged by another one. Rep. Joe Barton (R-Tex.) apologized to BP, saying the deal made at the White House Wednesday to set up an escrow fund to cover oil-spill damages and claims amounted to a "$20 billion shakedown."
While a subdued Hayward went on to anger committee members by deflecting their questions, Barton riled up a wider audience across the political spectrum. Then, late in the afternoon, he apologized for his apology after party leaders threatened to oust him from his position as ranking Republican on the committee.
Barton prompted the uproar with his opening statement at the hearing. "I'm ashamed of what happened in the White House yesterday," he said. "I think it is a tragedy of the first proportion that a private corporation can be subjected to what I would characterize as a shakedown." He said the escrow fund, which will be administered by the independent arbitrator Kenneth Feinberg, is a "slush fund" with "no legal standing."
Barton said BP should be pursued through the legal system.
"I apologize," he said to Hayward, who sat alone at the witness table, surrounded by two dozen photographers. "I do not want to live in a country where anytime a citizen or a corporation does something that is legitimately wrong is subject to some sort of political pressure that is, again, in my words, amounts to a shakedown. So I apologize."
Reaction was swift. Condemnations came from fellow committee members, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs, environmental groups and the liberal Center for American Progress.
Vice President Biden said Barton's comments were "incredibly insensitive, incredibly out of touch."
"There's no shakedown," Biden said angrily. "It's insisting on responsible conduct and a responsible response to something they caused."
"Congressman Barton's statements this morning were wrong," they said in a statement. "BP itself has acknowledged that responsibility for the economic damages lies with them and has offered an initial pledge of $20 billion for that purpose."
A GOP leadership aide said that Barton met with Boehner and Cantor in the afternoon and was told to "apologize, immediately. Or you will lose your position, immediately." Before the hearing ended, Barton had done so.
"I apologize for using the term 'shakedown' with regard to yesterday's actions at the White House in my opening statement this morning, and I retract my apology to BP," he said in a statement. "As I told my colleagues yesterday and said again this morning, BP should bear the full financial responsibility for the accident on their lease in the Gulf of Mexico."
But the political damage was done. Democratic groups noted that the Republican Study Committee had issued a statement Wednesday night saying the establishment of the escrow fund "suggests that the Obama Administration is hard at work exerting its brand of Chicago-style shakedown politics. 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."
David Donnelly of the Campaign for Fair Elections said campaign finance records show that Barton, who was elected to Congress in 1984, has received $27,350 in campaign contributions from people and political action committees associated with BP and $1.4 million from the oil and gas industry as a whole.
The dustup obscured what was supposed to be the day's main event: a showdown between Hayward and the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on oversight and investigations.
Committee members tried to bore in on the question of BP's culpability in the accident that set off the spill on April 20 in the gulf. Lawmakers said the company made decisions that appeared to be dangerous and defied the advice of its own experts. They asked Hayward whether he felt "accountable" and whether he should step down as chief executive. And they castigated him for decisions taken for cost-cutting reasons.
"BP made choices that set safety aside in exchange for cost-cutting and time-saving decisions," said Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), the subcommittee chairman.
"If there is any evidence people put cost ahead of safety, then I will take action," Hayward said.
The BP chief, whose responses remained measured all day, refused to betray his opinion about the documents and testimony the committee had accumulated.
"Our investigation is ongoing. It's not complete," he told Stupak. "I think it's too early to reach conclusions, with respect, Mr. Chairman."
When some lawmakers accused him of evading tough questions, Hayward said he was "not stonewalling. I simply was not involved in the decision-making process."
Pressed about whether he knew about the extensive problems drilling engineers were having with the well before it blew out, Hayward said he had "no prior knowledge" of them. He added: "With respect, sir, we drill hundreds of wells a year all around the world."
"Yes, I know," replied Rep. Michael C. Burgess (R-Tex.). "That's what's scaring me right now."
The hearing was interrupted by House votes on financial reform and once by a woman who appeared to have black oil smeared on her hands and face. Just after Hayward was sworn in, the woman, identified as Diane Wilson, stood up and started shouting, "You need to be charged with a crime!" Police officers struggled to remove her from the room.
At 5:30 p.m., 7 1/2 hours after the hearing began, Stupak told Hayward: "The evasiveness of your answers only served to increase the frustration, not decrease the frustration, not only of members of Congress but of the American people."
Staff writers Scott Wilson, Paul Kane and Carol D. Leonnig contributed to this report.