Updated: 4:05 p.m.
Rep. Joe Barton’s Republican colleagues are questioning whether he should step aside as the ranking member on the House Energy and Commerce Committee over comments he made apologizing to BP CEO Tony Hayward and ripping a $20 billion escrow account to pay for oil spill cleanup efforts.
Republican Rep. Jeff Miller, whose Florida Panhandle district includes a long stretch of threatened coastline, came out the strongest, issuing a statement condemning Barton’s comments and calling for him to step down.
“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,” Miller said. “He should step down as Ranking Member of the Committee”
Miller added that he was “shocked” by Barton’s comments, which he called “reprehensible.”
Although some other Republican House Members were reluctant to openly criticize Barton, one senior House GOP aide said that there was a “decent” chance that Barton’s comment could cost him his post.
“Decent, and growing by the minute,” the aide said. “The leaders are tired of his shtick, as are the Members.”
Many GOP lawmakers, including House Minority Leader John Boehner (Ohio), were quick to distance themselves from Barton. Boehner told reporters Thursday that he disagreed with Barton’s characterization of the escrow fund as a “shakedown.”
Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), an Energy and Commerce member who co-chairs a GOP energy working group, said he and most House Republicans were “on a different page” than Barton, noting that he strongly supports the escrow fund.
Upton said he did not think Barton’s remarks reflected the views of most House Republicans. “That’s not where we are — or should be,” he said.
Upton — who is the No. 3 Republican on the panel, after Barton and Rep. Ralph Hall (Texas) — said he was surprised by Barton’s comments and had heard talk about the possibility he could be forced to step aside.
“There’s a lot of rumors,” he said, declining to comment on whether he thought Barton should resign his post atop the committee. “Don’t put me in that box yet,” he said.
Another Energy and Commerce Republican, former Whip Roy Blunt (Mo.), also distanced himself from Barton’s comments by noting that he supported the escrow fund. But Blunt declined to weigh in on whether Barton should keep his committee post.
“The leaders — that’s something for them,” said Blunt, who is running for an open Senate seat in Missouri. “I haven’t been involved in any discussions like that.”
Rep. Anh “Joseph” Cao (R-La.) said that he was unfamiliar with the specifics of Barton’s comment but that he defended Barton’s First Amendment right to express his views.
Democrats, meanwhile, seized on Barton’s comments to hammer Republicans as Big Oil sympathizers, a perception the GOP has been working to dispel since the spill. The White House quickly issued a statement calling on Barton to “repudiate” his remarks, and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) also blasted Barton’s comment.
“If Mr. Barton thinks that the president of the United States, in light of the tragedy that’s going on there, should have simply sat back and said well, do whichever you are going to do, that’s not what the American people expected and that’s not what the American people want their president to do,” he said. “I think the president did exactly the right thing.”
Hoyer added that Barton’s apology to BP — along with other Republican criticism of the president’s push for an escrow fund from Republican Study Committee Chairman Tom Price (Ga.), who called it a Chicago-style “shakedown” — was emblematic of the Republican Party’s failure to regulate the oil and financial industries when it was in charge.
“That’s reflective of the reason we are where we are,” Hoyer said. “They believed if you simply leave the private sector unregulated, no oversight, let them do whatever they want to do, that everything will be fine. That wasn’t true in the financial community and it clearly wasn’t true here.”
But Hoyer declined to call for Barton to be removed from his ranking position. If Members of Congress were removed from their positions every time they said something dumb, “probably all of us would be removed,” he joked.
Jim Manley, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), issued a statement that attempted to broaden Barton’s comments to all Republicans. “Republicans should get their priorities straight: are they going to keep protecting and apologizing for Big Oil or will they finally stand up for families and businesses whose lives have been upended by the BP oil spill,” Manley said, adding that Barton’s comments demonstrated “an appalling amount of chutzpah.”
Jennifer Bendery and Jackie Kucinich contributed to this report.