WASHINGTON - Pensacola Rep. Jeff Miller called Thursday for fellow Republican Joe Barton of Texas to step down from his leadership position on the House Energy and Commerce Committee after Barton apologized to BP chief Tony Hayward.
In a hearing over the oil company's safety practices leading up to the April 20 explosion that set off the spill, lawmakers took turns grilling Hayward, suggesting that the company repeatedly placed cost and time over safety in making decisions that could have led to the oil well's failure.
But when it came time for Barton, the committee's top Republican, to make his opening statement, the Texas lawmaker turned the tables and apologized to Hayward for what he called a "shakedown" of BP.
"I'm ashamed of what happened in the White House yesterday," Barton said, referring to a meeting that took place Wednesday between President Barack Obama and top BP executives. After the meeting, the White House announced that BP had agreed to set up a $20 billion escrow account to pay damages to residents, businesses and cities harmed by the spill.
"I think it is a tragedy of the first proportion that a private corporation can be subjected to what I would characterize as a shakedown - in this case, a $20 billion shakedown," Barton said, calling the money "a $20 billion slush fund."
Barton retracted his comments later Thursday.
"I regret the impact that my statement this morning implied that BP should not pay for the consequences of their decisions and actions in this incident," he said.
But it wasn't enough. His comments drew ire from lawmakers across the political spectrum. Vice President Joe Biden called them "incredibly insensitive, incredibly out of touch." House Republican Leader John Boehner of Ohio said Barton's statements were "wrong."
Miller, a Pensacola Republican, condemned the comments.
"I am shocked by Congressman Joe Barton's reprehensible comments," Miller said in a 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 position on the Energy and Commerce Committee. He should step down as ranking member of the committee."
The White House also weighed in with this statement issued by press secretary Robert Gibbs: "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. 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. Members from both parties should repudiate his comments."
Republican Rep. Adam Putnam of Bartow also denounced Barton's comments.
"Congressman Barton's comments were callous and inappropriate. To say they were ill-advised is an insult to advice," Putnam said in a statement. "He owes the people of the Gulf Coast an apology, not the CEO of the company who may have cut corners to produce this horrific national tragedy."
Barton, a 13-term lawmaker, has received $27,350 from individuals and political action committees associated with BP, the eighth-highest among members of Congress, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.
Individuals or PACs associated with the oil and gas industry have been the Texas politician's biggest patron since he entered Congress, donating more than $1.4 million to his campaigns since 1990, the watchdog group said.
Meanwhile, committee members in a daylong hearing pressed Hayward for answers about how and why the decisions were made that preceded the worst oil disaster in history.
Hayward told lawmakers in his opening statement that he was deeply sorry for the oil leak and was "personally devastated" when he learned that 11 workers working on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig had been killed.
Malia Rulon, Tallahassee Democrat