Barton Struggles to Regain Footing

Ranking Slot May Be at Stake Despite Apology

Posted June 21, 2010 at 6:31pm

Rep. Joe Barton appears to have few allies in his fight to keep his top GOP slot on the Energy and Commerce Committee despite working the phones through the weekend to shore up support among his House Republican colleagues.

The Texan made a round of calls to GOP Gulf State lawmakers as well as several members of the Energy and Commerce panel to say he was sorry for his now-infamous apology to BP, several GOP offices that received the calls said Monday.

But Barton’s campaign of contrition appears to have done him little if any good so far. Two GOP lawmakers who last week called on Barton to resign as ranking member of the committee — Reps. Jeff Miller (Fla.) and Jo Bonner (Ala.) — indicated Barton’s phone calls did not change their minds.

Spokesmen for Reps. Steve Scalise (R-La.), John Shimkus (R-Ill.) and Michael Burgess (R-Texas) also confirmed Monday that Barton called their bosses.

Scalise spokesman Stephen Bell said the call did little to alter Scalise’s view of Barton’s comments, which he said “detracts from the bigger issues here.”

“We’ve got oil in the Gulf. That’s still got to be the main focus,” Bell said. “There needs to be more of a sense of urgency from BP and the federal government as a whole.”

Steven Tomaszewski, a spokesman for Shimkus, declined to comment on his boss’s conversation with Barton.

Lauren Bean, a spokeswoman for Burgess, said the Texas Republican would not call for Barton to cede his post.

Miller was the first Republican to ask that Barton give up his ranking slot, and Miller spokesman Dan McFaul said Monday that his boss still wanted Barton to step aside.

Bonner issued a scathing statement late Friday saying that although he appreciated Barton’s call earlier that day, “the damage” of Barton’s comment was “beyond repair” and he called for Barton’s immediate resignation as the top Energy and Commerce Republican.

“Joe’s comments were stupid and extremely insensitive to the hundreds of thousands of people who live along the Gulf Coast — many in my district — who are literally watching their way of life be destroyed by this catastrophe,” Bonner said in the statement.

One Republican Member said Barton’s fate ultimately rests in the hands of the Gulf Coast Members.

“The Gulf Coast Republicans will drive this, and they should,” the Member said. “Bonner and Jeff Miller are well-respected and, I believe, they truly want Barton’s head.”

The Member added, “Barton’s just lucky we didn’t have votes Friday or [Monday].”

Other GOP sources familiar with the situation said House leadership and other members of the conference are still seething from Barton’s apology Thursday to BP CEO Tony Hayward during a nationally televised Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing for the way the U.S. government was treating BP.

Shortly after his apology, Barton was confronted by House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and was told to apologize or be removed from his ranking spot on Energy and Commerce.

After the meeting, Barton issued a statement, circulated by Boehner’s office, retracting his apology to BP and saying he was sorry for using the term “shakedown” to describe the $20 billion escrow fund for spill cleanup and restitution backed by the White House.

Boehner, Cantor and House Republican Conference Chairman Mike Pence (Ind.) then issued a sharply worded joint statement calling Barton’s comments “wrong.”

But despite the damage control, the political harm to the GOP was already done.

Democrats immediately seized on Barton’s apology to Hayward — made from a prepared statement — to paint Republicans as in league with Big Oil, hammering vulnerable Republicans while making pitches for campaign cash.

To insulate their members from Democratic attacks, Republicans are trying to portray Barton’s remarks, as a senior Senate GOP aide put it, as an example of “one guy saying something crazy” and to refocus attention on what they characterize as an inadequate response from the Obama administration.

“Democrats are totally missing the point with this line of attack,” the aide said, adding that the message war over Barton had distracted from cleanup efforts. “The fact of the matter is there is still oil flowing into the Gulf. There’s a well that still needs to be capped. … Democrats are in charge whether they like it or not.”

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has sent four fundraising e-mails to its list of 4 million grass-roots supporters playing off Barton’s comments and encouraging potential donors to help defeat Republican candidates.

DCCC officials have also begun targeting specific Republican incumbents in contested districts who are members of the conservative Republican Study Committee after the group’s chairman, Rep. Tom Price (Ga.), also characterized the escrow fund as a “shakedown.”

“The question for every House Republican incumbent and candidate is simple: Do you stand with the people of the Gulf and American taxpayers or with Joe Barton and the 114-Member Republican Study Committee in their stated belief that holding British Petroleum accountable is a ‘shakedown’?” DCCC national press secretary Ryan Rudominer said.

Rudominer declined to estimate how much money the DCCC had raised from its Barton-base campaign.

White House officials, meanwhile, have launched an assault based on the idea that Barton could chair the Energy and Commerce panel if Republicans succeed in their quest to win back the House in the midterm elections.

White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel reiterated the argument Sunday on ABC’s “This Week,” adding that Barton’s comments reflected Republicans’ “governing philosophy.”

Should Republicans win in November, a Barton chairmanship is unlikely because of leadership term limits, but that fact has done little to affect the Democrats’ public relations offensive.

“This goes well beyond just Joe Barton,” a Democratic strategist said. “Obviously, Joe Barton created a huge opening just because he was on national TV when he said it.”