WASHINGTON — The day after Rep. Joe Barton became a household name — and a source of ridicule for late night comics — by first apologizing to BP and then retracting his apology, the Texas Republican appeared to go underground.
His office phone message said his Washington office was closed, although press secretary Sean Brown eventually e-mailed that aides were, in fact, at work, but that there'd be no further comment.
Barton enraged Republicans as well as Democrats at a congressional hearing Thursday by calling a $20 billion fund for Gulf oil spill victims that the White House secured from BP a "shakedown." He came close to losing his powerful position as the top Republican on the Energy and Commerce Committee — he has held it since 2004 — and may have doomed any chance to extend his term-limited committee post beyond the end of the year.
On Friday, at least one Republican, Rep. Jo Bonner, who represents Mobile, Ala., said that Barton's "half-hearted apology" was not enough and his "stupid" and "insensitive remarks" were so wrong that the Texan needed to step down as the committee's ranking member.
Democrats wasted no time capitalizing on Barton's comments, with fundraising appeals Thursday and Friday. The Democratic National Committee released a TV ad Friday giving Barton as exhibit A as to who would be in charge if Republicans took back the House of Representatives. "Tell Republicans to stop apologizing to Big Oil," the ad said.
Barton's three terms as the top Republican on the panel ends this year unless he can get a waiver from House Minority Leader John Boehner of Ohio, who forced Barton to apologize Thursday — not once, but twice after the first apology didn't satisfy top House Republicans.
"He wanted a waiver. He was working toward that," said Rep. Gene Green, D-Texas, a member of the energy panel who's friendly with Barton. Republican leadership aides said they thought Barton's chances for a waiver, once slim, were now slimmer.
Barton is in a safe Republican district, although his remarks gave his Democratic opponent, David Cozad, an overnight fundraising boost.
Republicans Friday were largely unwilling to talk about the episode — which played out on national television — although fellow Texas Republican Rep. Michael Burgess, also a member of the energy panel, told McClatchy that, "He's the ranking member, and I support him."
Do the incident and its fallout weaken Barton? "In the short term, it certainly does," said Southern Methodist University political expert Cal Jillson, predicting that the Texas Republican "will go to ground" for a time.
American Enterprise Institute congressional scholar Norm Ornstein said that Barton's biggest problem is that at a time when the GOP was gaining traction against Obama before the mid-term elections, "Joe gave him a gift-wrapped present."
"A major figure apologizing to BP enables the Democrats to put Republicans on the side of the oil companies that did this" to the Gulf, said Ornstein, "and not on the side of the American people."
Jay Leno: I couldn't believe it. A Republican, Joe Barton of Texas, actually apologized to BP executives today, calling the $20 billion fund that the White House set up "a shakedown," called it a shakedown.
Do you believe the tar balls on that guy?
David Letterman: A congressman from Texas apologized to BP for what he called a political "shakedown." Nice to see rich white guys sticking up for each other.
Jimmy Kimmel: Rep. Joe Barton of Texas took it upon himself to apologize to BP CEO Tony Hayward for a political "shakedown." He later apologized for his apology and explained that he hadn't seen the news in two months, and didn't know that BP recently destroyed the ocean.
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