Gulf oil spill puts industry-friendly Republicans in tight spot

Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, accused the White House of conducting a "$20 billion shakedown" by requiring oil giant BP to establish a fund to compensate those hurt by the Gulf Coast oil spill.
By Karen Tumulty
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 18, 2010

Who says there's no such thing as loyalty in politics?

Rep. Joe L. Barton (R-Tex.), who has received more than $100,000 in campaign contributions from the oil industry during this election cycle, revealed Thursday that he may be the only person in America who believes that BP deserves an apology for the way it has been treated during the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

Although Barton later retracted his suggestion that BP was the victim of a White House "shakedown" -- after House GOP leaders threatened to take away his position as ranking Republican on the Energy and Commerce Committee -- the episode showed the uncomfortable spot in which some Republicans find themselves.

This is not the moment to be seen as coddling Big Oil. The GOP leadership has laid out a set of talking points that spread blame in all directions -- toward the company, the White House and the regulators who looked the other way.

But some Republicans are having trouble bringing themselves to say anything bad about an industry that has been so good to them. It was notable that in their statement distancing themselves from Barton, House Republican leaders John A. Boehner (Ohio), Eric Cantor (Va.) and Mike Pence (Ind.) referred to the spill -- caused by the explosion of an oil rig -- as a "natural" disaster.

The oil industry "has deep pockets, and they have a long history of supporting Republicans," said political consultant John Weaver, a former strategist for John McCain's 2008 presidential campaign. "Like any kind of addiction, it's a terribly difficult thing to break."

To some Republicans, the defense of the oil industry has more to do with their belief in free enterprise and their wariness of regulation. The debate over drilling has been a core part of their argument for less government. This may not be the best moment to be making that argument, either.

For the GOP leadership, it hasn't been easy to get their people to stick to the script: Blame Obama, but scold BP. (The problem with message discipline is, it requires discipline).

It isn't just Barton. Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) called the $20 billion escrow account a "redistribution of wealth fund." Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga) accused the Obama administration of "Chicago-style shakedown politics."

Sarah Palin has gone so far as to suggest that the real fault for the catastrophe in the gulf lies with the environmental movement.

On June 1, the former Alaska governor and former vice presidential nominee sent this message out on Twitter: "Extreme Greenies: see now why we push 'drill, baby, drill' of known reserves & promising finds in safe onshore places like ANWR [the Alaskan Natural Wildlife Refuge]? Now do you get it?"

If that kind of spin seems out of touch with public outrage, the GOP also risks falling out of step with parts of its own base. Among some evangelicals, for instance, there is a growing environmental movement. In a blog post the same day as Palin's Twitter fusillade, Southern Baptist theologian Russell Moore suggested that the oil spill should be the same kind of call to arms for conservative Christians as the Roe v. Wade decision establishing abortion rights was nearly four decades ago.

"For too long, we evangelical Christians have maintained an uneasy ecological conscience," he wrote. "Because we believe in free markets, we've acted as though this means we should trust corporations to protect the natural resources and habitats."

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