WASHINGTON — Who's sorry now? Rep. Joe Barton, that's who.
The Texas Republican, the House's top recipient of oil industry campaign contributions since 1990, apologized Thursday for apologizing to the chief of the British company that befouled the Gulf of Mexico with a massive oil spill.
His double mea culpa plus a retraction, executed under pressure from fuming GOP leaders, succeeded in shifting attention from the tragedy, BP's many missteps and the stoic British oil chief at the witness table, to his own party's close connection to the oil industry.
Barton started the ruckus at midmorning when he took aim at the $20 billion relief fund for victims of the spill sought by the White House and agreed to by BP.
"I apologize," Barton said to BP CEO Tony Hayward, who was sitting at a witness table for another of Congress' ritual floggings of wayward corporate heads.
"I do not want to live in a country where any time a citizen or a corporation does something that is legitimately wrong is subject to some sort of political pressure that is - again, in my words, amounts to a shakedown," Barton said. "So I apologize."
Incensed at the gift Barton had given Democrats, Republicans came close to stripping Barton of his post as chairman-in-waiting of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. GOP leaders summoned Barton to the Capitol and demanded he apologize in specific terms. The leaders threatened to launch a process to strip Barton of his seniority on the powerful panel, a particularly painful threat to any long-term lawmaker, according to two knowledgeable Republican officials who demanded anonymity so they could speak freely about private meetings.
But it was the notion of an American lawmaker apologizing to a foreign head of a corporation that had caused great hardships for millions of Gulf Coast residents that incited rare Republican-on-Republican rage. Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., became the first in his party to demand that Barton be stripped of his seniority. During a House vote later in the day, other Republicans pressed their leaders for Barton's punishment - and at least two in the leadership were still considering that option, the officials said.
As Barton returned to the committee, the leaders issued their own statement:
"Congressman Barton's statements this morning were wrong."
Vice President Joe Biden weighed in - lightheartedly at first, red-faced by the end.
"I find it incredibly insensitive, incredibly out of touch," Biden told reporters. "There's no shakedown. It's insisting on responsible conduct and a responsible response to something they caused."
Democrats, eager to tie Republicans to the oil industry during this midterm election year, piled on.
"While people in the Gulf are suffering from the actions of BP, the Republicans in the Congress are apologizing to BP," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said.
By midafternoon, Barton was back on the dais with a statement that was something short of what the leaders had demanded.
"I want the record to be absolutely clear that I think BP is responsible for this accident," he said. "If anything I said this morning has been misconstrued, in opposite effect, I want to apologize for that misconstruction."
Barton then issued, and House Republican leader John Boehner's office forwarded out a somewhat different written statement.
"I apologize for using the term 'shakedown' with regard to yesterday's actions at the White House this morning, and I retract my apology to BP," it began, and finished: "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."
Barton has received $100,470 in campaign donations from oil and gas interests since the beginning of 2009, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The same group reported that since 1990, political action committees of the oil and gas industry and people who worked for it have given more than $1.4 million to Barton's campaigns, the most of any House member during that period.