Republicans eager to attack President Obama have waded into politically treacherous waters by assailing creation of a $20-billion gulf relief fund, risking the appearance that they side with BP over victims of the oil spill.
“I’m ashamed of what happened in the White House yesterday,” Rep. Joe L. Barton, a major recipient of donations from the oil and gas industry, told BP Chief Executive Tony Hayward near the start of a congressional hearing Thursday. The escrow fund, created at the insistence of the administration, was “a tragedy of the first proportion … a $20-billion shakedown,” Barton said.
Within hours — under pressure from House Republican leaders — Barton backed away from his comments and expressed regret, saying the energy giant “should do everything possible to make good.”
By then, however, Democrats including Vice President Joe Biden had weighed in with outrage and issued a flurry of e-mail that called attention to Barton’s statements. Many were convinced, as one senior White House official put it, that the lawmaker’s sympathy toward BP presented an opportunity to recast the debate over the prolonged cleanup and, perhaps, the politics surrounding the spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
“Incredibly insensitive,” Biden said.
“Shameful,” said White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs.
In a highly unusual move, angry House Republican leaders issued a joint statement saying Barton was wrong for apologizing to BP. After fielding phone calls from unhappy Gulf Coast Republicans, they threatened to strip him of his seniority on the Energy and Commerce Committee unless he retracted his statement.
Although few Republicans rushed to his defense, Barton was not alone in his criticism of Obama, reflecting a split between the party mainstream and an increasingly confrontational wing of the GOP.
On Wednesday, the Republican Study Committee, a conservative policy group in the House, called the agreement with BP “a Chicago-style political shakedown.” Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, a reliably provocative favorite of the “tea party” movement, called the escrow account “a redistribution-of-wealth fund,” a view echoed by conservative TV and radio commentator Rush Limbaugh, among others on the farther reaches of the right.
Last month, Republican Rand Paul, running for Senate in Kentucky, offered perhaps the first defense of BP, saying Obama’s harsh criticism of the energy firm was “un-American.”
Jeffrey Bell, a conservative strategist, said Barton’s rebuke of the president was valid, and good politics besides.
“It’s part of a narrative whereby Obama’s attitude is always top-down,” Bell said, suggesting the president’s “high-handed” approach since the accident occurred nearly two months ago “is a big reason why the oil spill has been such a problem for Obama.”
David Beatty, a Democratic strategist in Florida, reflected the sentiments of many in the party, who viewed Barton’s statement as a major gaffe and, potentially, a political life-line for Democrats.
“I hope Republicans in Florida repeat that,” Beatty said. “I hope Republicans in Alabama and Mississippi repeat that, because this is hitting people where they live.”
In Louisiana, political analyst Brian Brox agreed.
“For the better part of two months we’ve heard a nonstop drumbeat, particularly from local Republicans, that the administration hadn’t done enough,” said Brox, who teaches political science at New Orleans’ Tulane University. “Now that they’re actually doing something, and something with real impact — getting BP to pony up money — this sounds like criticism for the sake of being critical.”
More to the point, Brox said, “you don’t want to be seen as defending BP. Nobody likes BP right now.”
James Oliphant of The Times’ Washington bureau contributed to this report.