Well, no one will accuse Joe Barton of following the whims of political opinion. At a moment when the American public is debating whether to be more disgusted with BP’s failures to prevent the Deepwater Horizon blowout or Barack Obama’s inability to get engaged on the issue, Barton today took the unusual step of apologizing to BP’s CEO in Congressional testimony today. The White House now demands that the GOP repudiate Barton’s comments, and Republicans may need to decide whether supporting BP in a food fight is really worth the effort:

As the top Republican on the Energy and Commerce Committee, Barton’s opening statement this morning during the hearing with CEO of BP Tony Hayward, he said he was ashamed at the deal made at the White House yesterday.

“It’s a tragedy that private corporation can be subjected to a shakedown,” Barton said of the compensation fund, “”a $20 billion slush fund unprecedented in American history.”

Barton concluded by apologizing to Hayward. …

“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,” White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said in a strongly worded statement quickly after Barton’s remarks, “Congressman Barton may think that a fund to compensate these Americans is a ‘tragedy’, but most Americans know that the real tragedy is what the men and women of the Gulf Coast are going through right now.”

If Barton wanted to keep heat on the White House over its interactions with BP, this is a poor way of going about it. BP doesn’t require any apologies at the moment, at least not until we know what happened. There may well be some serious questions about federal overreach and interference with the due process of claims after the establishment of this fund, but it’s a little overdramatic to claim that BP didn’t get due process in creating the escrow account. They surrendered on that point without bothering to fight. Plenty of lawsuits and even criminal charges get settled without going to court when both parties agree on a settlement, usually one produced under some kind of duress to one or both parties.

It’s possible to oppose the White House’s actions here without begging forgiveness of BP and its CEO. This is a mistake.

What do you think? Take the poll:


Update: Boehner disagrees with Barton, putting focus on both BP and White House:

Top Republicans quickly distanced themselves from Barton. The House Minority Leader, Rep. John Boehner, asked if he disagrees with Barton’s apology, said, “I do.” …

“BP is responsible and is being held responsible,” said Boehner. “But the federal government failed the American people as well.”

And Tom Price, the Republican Study Committee chair, did a better job of not providing a distraction:

Rep. Tom Price of Georgia, who chairs the Republican Study Committee, used similar terminology yesterday when he described the process the White House used to get the fund as “Chicago-style shakedown politics.”

“BP’s reported 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,” said Price in a statement. “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. It is the same mentality that believes an economic crisis or an environmental disaster is the best opportunity to pursue a failed liberal agenda. The American people know much better.”

But Price didn’t apologize to BP.

Update II: On the other hand, it’s possible to overdo the “distancing” message, too:

Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), whose Pensacola district is among the most-impacted areas in the Gulf by the oil spill, condemned Barton for apologizing to BP CEO Tony Hayward during a committee meeting on Thursday.

“I condemn Mr. Barton’s statement. 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 on the Energy and Commerce Committee,” MIller said in a statement. “He should step down as ranking member of the Committee.” …

“I am shocked by Congressman Joe Barton’s reprehensible comments that the government should apologize for the ‘shakedown’ of BP,” he said. “BP has caused the greatest ecological and environmental disaster our nation has ever seen. They are the responsible party and they should pay for losses and damages, not the taxpayer. I am optimistic and hopeful that BP acted in good faith by opening the $20 million escrow account, as several of us have requested.”

Miller’s ire is understandable, considering the damage BP did to his district, but Barton’s commentary doesn’t rise to a level that requires removal from the committee assignment.