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Barton Apology to BP Turns Oil Spill Into Political Football

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June 17: Rep. Joe Barton asks a question at a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing on the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, on Capitol Hill. (Reuters)

Rep. Joe Barton's apology to BP Chief Tony Hayward for what he called a White House "shakedown" for demanding a $20 billion fund for damage claims has turned into a political football that Democrats are hoping to exploit.

Republicans were deeply embarrassed by Barton's apology to BP during a House hearing Thursday, demanding that the ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee retract his mea culpa or lose his seniority. Barton returned to the committee room and did just that.

But like the spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the lid was blown, and Republicans have been in damage control ever since.

"I couldn't disagree with Joe Barton more. B.P. doesn't need an apology. They need to apologize to us, and they certainly need to cover all the costs of the cleanup and the economic damages as well. And they're going -- they're going to," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

Immediately after Barton's remarks, the Democratic National Committee created a television ad showing Barton making his apology while the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee ran ads on Facebook.

White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel kept up the assault on Sunday.

"You can say it's a political gift for us, and it is," Emanuel told ABC's "This Week." "That's not a political gaffe. Those were prepared remarks. That is a philosophy. That is an approach to what they see. They see the aggrieved party here is BP, not the fishermen."

Emanuel went further, linking Barton to any number of Republican candidates who think that "government is the problem."

"This is not just one person. Rand Paul, running for Senate in Kentucky, what did he say? He said the way BP was being treated was un-American," Emanuel said. "Other members of the Republican leadership have come to the defense of BP and attacked the administration for forcing them to set up an escrow account and fund it to the level of $20 billion."

Emanuel acknowledged that the Minerals Management Service, an agency within the Department of Interior, was lax in regulating the oil giant. Nonetheless, he said, "I think what Joe Barton did is remind the American people, in case they forgot, this is how the Republicans would govern."

Republicans, however, were not ready to lie down and take the onslaught. McConnell said Obama is one of the largest recipients of BP donations. He accused the administration of exploiting the spill to pass energy legislation.

McConnell added that the Democratic philosophy is that government is too big to fail.

"The president has been advocating expansion of government across the board in virtually every area. If you're going to advocate expansion of the government, then you look not so good when the government you're already in charge of doesn't function very well," he said.

"You know, the president himself is in charge of developing a contingency plan to deal with oil spills. What happened to it? We know there are skimmers around the world that could be sent here. Where are they? The administration has a role to play in this and they haven't done a very good job so far," McConnell added.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, also called Barton's comment "absolutely wrong," but warned against the administration "running with this as the issue."

"Let's not forget, we had 11 people die, and we have an environmental disaster unfolding and an economic disaster unfolding. Let's not be distracted by saying, you know, Joe Barton made this gaffe or this inappropriate comment. Let's focus on what we need to do, which is getting relief to the Gulf, making sure that they have every asset possible, and making sure we have a claims compensation system that works for them," she said on CNN.

With the glare of the spotlight on Barton's words, Ken Feinberg, the man in charge of administering the $20 billion escrow fund for local businesses affected by the spill, suggested that the apology lacks merit to begin with.

"I don't think it's a shakedown ... But I don't think it helps to politicize this program. These people in the Gulf are in desperate straits," Feinberg said, noting that to its credit, BP was cooperating in paying out claims, having distributed $100 million so far. 

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, a Republican, added that the $20 billion is being set aside in $5 billion increments, which protects BP from having to give up so much working capital it can't carry out its pledge to clean up the Gulf.

"It's good for BP. BP -- that was to their advantage to get taken out of the claims business. The $20 billion, once it was done where BP could continue to operate as a going concern and pay their bills that they owe Louisiana, Mississippi, and Florida and Alabama, that also was a good deal for BP," said Barbour, who appeared with Feinberg on NBC's "Meet the Press."

Barbour said that while he doesn't think Barton's apology was "accurate," he does think the administration is going to try to redirect attention toward "anything but this oil spill." 

"They want to change the subject. And I can understand that," he said.

Barbour added that he's not afraid of being accused of being too close to the oil company now known for the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history. 

"You're looking at a guy that has already told you 15 times today BP is responsible to pay every penny of this. We expect them to pay every penny of this. We're going to demand they pay every penny of this. And if that makes me cozy with BP, it's because I want to make sure that my people stay in their wallet and their checkbook."