By Aaron Blake and Paul Kane
Thursday, June 17, 2010; 5:11 PM
Under pressure from Republican leaders who threatened to remove him from a ranking committee position, Rep. Joe Barton (R-Tex.) late Thursday retracted his apology to BP CEO Tony Hayward for the way his company has been treated by the U.S. government -- a comment that had drawn heavy criticism from both parties.
Barton made that apology to Hayward in his opening statement Thursday morning before Hayward's testimony to the House subcommittee, in which Barton decried the Obama administration for pressuring BP to open a $20 billion escrow account and to suspend dividend payments for the rest of the year.
The ranking Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee said such arrangements have no legal basis, and that the political pressure exerted on the corporation in the midst of an investigation is a "tragedy of the first proportion."
"I'm ashamed of what happened in the White House yesterday," Barton said in the morning. "I apologize."
Barton called the escrow account, which will be distributed independently, a "slush fund" and said the situation amounted to a "shakedown" by the White House. He said if he, as a congressman, asked for something similar from a corporation he was investigating, he could go to jail.
Later Thursday, when House Republican leaders called his statement "wrong," Barton first said he was sorry for the "misconstruction" of his comments, then later put out a statement retracting his apology to BP.
According to a GOP leadership aide, Barton met with House Minority Leader John Boehner (Ohio) and Minority Whip Eric Cantor (Va.) Thursday afternoon, and was told, "Apologize, immediately. Or you will lose your [subcommittee] position, immediately. Now that he has apologized, we'll see what happens going forward."
Another aide said Barton would now not be removed unless he goes on "the TV circuit" and causes further controversy. The aides requested anonymity to discuss the private discussions of the Republican leaders.
In his statement, Barton said, "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...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."
BP's Hayward said in testimony at the hearing that he doesn't think the $20 billion escrow account amounts to a "slush fund." Pressed by Rep. Bruce Braley (D-Iowa), Hayward repeatedly declined to give a yes-or-no answer about whether he thought the situation represented a "shakedown."
Almost immediately following Barton's morning comments, the liberal blogs and Democratic campaign operatives sprang into action and the White House denounced Barton. Even before Barton's comments, Democrats had been attempting to connect Republicans to BP, noting the many contributions GOP congressmen have received from it and other oil companies.
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said in a statement that Barton was taking the side of corporations over the American people.
"Congressman Barton may think that a fund to compensate these Americans is a tragedy, but most Americans know that the real tragedy is what the men and women of the Gulf Coast are going through right now," Gibbs said. "Members from both parties should repudiate his comments."
Jim Manley, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), said: "Republicans should get their priorities straight: Are they going to keep protecting and apologizing for Big Oil or will they finally stand up for families and businesses whose lives have been upended by the BP oil spill?"
Republicans hoping to pin the problems of the Gulf Coast on Obama were immediately put on the defensive.
Later Thursday, Boehner, Cantor (Va.) and Conference Chairman Mike Pence (Ind.) issued a statement denouncing Barton's comments.
"Congressman Barton's statements this morning were wrong," the Republicans said. "BP itself has acknowledged that responsibility for the economic damages lies with them and has offered an initial pledge of $20 billion dollars for that purpose. The families and businesspeople in the Gulf region want leadership, accountability and action from BP and the administration. It is unacceptable that, 59 days after this crisis began, no solution is forthcoming."
Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) spent much of his speaking time at the hearing attacking Barton.
"This is not a shakedown of the company," Markey said. "This is, in my opinion, the American government working at its best."
Democrats point out that Barton, represents a district just south of Dallas, has a history of defending the energy industry and making controversial and colorful comments.
Barton has some company in his position. Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.) also said in a statement Wednesday that the fund amounted to a shakedown.
"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.