WASHINGTON -- A Texas Republican apologized to BP CEO Tony Hayward on Thursday for having to set aside $20 billion for Gulf of Mexico damage claims, drawing ridicule from Democrats and embarrassing Republicans.
Rep. Joe Barton, a major recipient of campaign contributions from the oil and gas industry, triggered an uproar with his lengthy apology to Hayward for being the victim of a White House "shakedown."
Barton's point, made at the start of a congressional hearing featuring Hayward's testimony, was that BP should pay for damage claims but should be allowed to follow the "due process and fairness" of the American legal system.
"I'm speaking totally for myself, I'm not speaking for the Republican party ... but I'm ashamed of what happened in the White House yesterday," Barton said.
He called it "a tragedy of the first proportion, that a private corporation can be subjected to what I would characterize as a shakedown, a $20 billion shakedown."
President Barack Obama on Wednesday pressured BP to set up a $20 billion compensation fund for the Gulf spill during a meeting at the White House.
As Republicans seek to pick up seats from majority Democrats in November's congressional elections, Barton's position is politically risky because Americans by and large blame BP for the devastating spill and want the huge company to pay for it.
His stance was bound to be unpopular in the Gulf region, where the spill is wreaking havoc on the economy — fishermen are out of work and hotel and restaurants are losing in an area heavily dependent on tourism.
Barton gave hope to Democrats looking for any way possible to fend off expected big losses in November. They quickly pounced on Barton's remarks.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs denounced Barton and called on members of both parties to repudiate his comments.
"What is shameful is that Joe Barton seems to have more concern for big corporations that caused this disaster than the fishermen, small business owners and communities whose lives have been devastated by the destruction," said Gibbs.
Ryan Rudominer, spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said: "The American people will hold House Republicans accountable for this shameful defense of BP, and for once again siding with Big Oil and gas interests."
Republicans on Capitol Hill were chagrined at Barton's statement and the leader of Republicans in the House, John Boehner, distanced himself from Barton.
"BP agreed to fund the cost of this cleanup from the beginning and I'm glad they are being held accountable," Boehner said.
Asked whether he disagrees with Barton's remarks, Boehner said: "I do."
Barton stuck to his position. "I just think it is very unAmerican to have the president of the United States demand $20 billion and have a company agree without being able to exercise all its rights under our system of laws and precedents," he told Reuters.
Barton is not alone among Republicans holding this view.
Rep. Tom Price of Georgia, chairman of the Republican Study Committee, a group of conservative House members, issued a statement arguing the same point.
The White House does not have the legal authority to compel a private company to set up and fund an escrow account, Price said. The White House has dismissed such criticism.
Price said BP's willingness to go along with the White House's new 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," Price said.
And former Texas Republican Rep. Dick Armey, who was House majority leader and is a leading voice in the conservative tea party movement, told a Christian Science Monitor breakfast this week that Obama lacks the constitutional authority to set up such a fund.
"The Constitution doesn't give that authority to the executive branch . . . There are courts for this purpose," Armey said, according to the Dallas Morning News.
In addition, conservative Republican Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota was quoted as telling the Heritage Foundation think tank on Tuesday that the escrow account was a "redistribution-of-wealth fund."
Barton is the biggest recipient of oil and gas industry campaign contributions in the House, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.
Its data showed that Barton has collected $1,447,880 from political action committees and individuals connected with the oil and gas industry since 1989.
© 2013 Thomson/Reuters. All rights reserved.