WASHINGTON — Rep. Joe Barton created a political furor Thursday by first apologizing to BP chief executive Tony Hayward at a morning hearing on the Gulf oil spill — for what the Texas Republican called a White House "shakedown" that created a $20 billion escrow fund — and then being forced to retract it after coming under intense GOP pressure that almost stripped him of his position as ranking member on the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
Barton issued a statement late Thursday afternoon retracting the apology he made in the morning at an Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing — a statement that mobilized Republicans as well as Democrats, including Vice President Joe Biden.
"I apologize for using the term 'shakedown' with regard to yesterday's actions at the White House in my opening statement this morning," said Barton, "and I retract my apology to BP."
President Barack Obama and administration officials met with BP executives and hammered out an agreement for a $20 billion escrow fund over three years to compensate victims of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
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"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," said Barton in his apology for his apology. "BP should fully compensate those families and businesses that have been hurt by this accident. BP and the federal government need to stop the leak, clean up the damage, and take whatever steps necessary to prevent a similar accident in the future."
"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," Barton said.
In a highly unusual joint statement, House Minority Leader John Boehner of Ohio, Minority Whip Eric Cantor of Virginia and Republican Conference Chairman Mike Pence of Indiana said, "Congressman Barton's statements this morning were wrong. 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."
Many Republican lawmakers, including Rep. Jeff Miller of Florida, who represents Pensacola, called for Barton to be stripped of his powerful committee position.
"Mr. Barton's remarks are out of touch with this tragedy and I feel his comments call into question his judgment and ability to serve in a leadership position on the Energy and Commerce Committee," Miller said.
Boehner and Cantor met with Barton about his remarks and the negative image they created for Republicans.
"This was not helpful," said a top Republican aide who wasn't authorized to speak on the matter and requested anonymity. "If he hadn't apologized, he likely would have lost his job."
Eager for a shift in political fortunes, Democrats seized on Barton's remarks to portray the GOP as too friendly to the oil industry and too cool to the lives of Americans hurt by the oil spill. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee sent out a fundraising e-mail based on Barton's remarks.
Barton, a 25-year House veteran, didn't fully apologize when he returned to the committee hearing, apologizing only if people had "misconstrued" his remarks. That further enraged Republican leaders who demanded, and got, his written retraction and full apology.
Barton is in his last year as the top Republican on a committee that, under GOP House rules, limits members to three terms unless they get a waiver from the Republican leader. That waiver, said another GOP aide also not authorized to speak, is now less likely.
Barton has been a strong defender of the oil industry, and according to opensecrets.org, a nonpartisan website that monitors Federal Election Committee data, Barton's top corporate contributors are from the oil and gas industry, with individuals and political action committees giving him a total of $1.49 million back to 1989.
Barton's initial remarks drew strong reactions from Biden and White House press secretary Robert Gibbs.
Biden stopped by the daily White House briefing and weighed in on Barton's comments, calling them "outrageous" and "incredibly insensitive, incredibly out of touch."
"There's no shakedown," Biden said.
Gibbs said Obama "shook his head" in disbelief when he was told of Barton's comments and said he didn't understand why anybody would say that.
Several Republicans, including Rep. Michael Burgess of Texas, the oversight and investigations subcommittee's ranking member, distanced themselves from Barton. Burgess, during his turn questioning Hayward, made it a point to tell him that he wouldn't apologize to him.
(Steven Thomma contributed to this article.)
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