When Texas Congressman Joe Barton, the top Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, apologized to BP today, he sparked media attention and set off a wave of Democratic criticism both inside and outside the committee room.
That's probably not all he set off. Democratic National Committee Communications Director Brad Woodhouse sent out a memo to reporters shortly thereafter stocked with Democratic ammo against Republicans over the BP oil spill. Rep. Tom Price of the Republican Study Committee had called Obama's $20 billion escrow fund a "Chicago-style political shakedown"; House Minority Leader John Boehner had seemingly suggested (despite a previous statement to the contrary) that taxpayers should help pay for damages; Sen. David Vitter's bill to lift the liability cap only for BP "lacks teeth"; Republicans blocked a vote on Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez's competing liability-cap bill. All the things Democrats will use to hit Republicans over their reactions to the spill.
But it led off with this:
You talk about a pivot point in the BP Oil Spill ... Republicans apologizing to BP and opposing $20 billion of BP's non-taxpayer money to compensate businesses and workers in the Gulf is it. Republicans have politicized this issue from the beginning - and as is practice for them - they will always overplay their hand - and they have here.
"Republicans apologizing to BP and..." Barton's comment has already been pluralized, lumped in with Republicans skeptical of the escrow fund.
The grammatical accuracy of Woodhouse's sentence is debatable, but Barton's apology conveniently encapsulates everything Democrats want voters to believe about Republicans--basically, that they love oil companies, take oil-company donations, want to shelter oil companies from responsibility, and generally stand in the way of clean energy.
It will be no surprise if Barton's statement is used synecdochically in blanket cries of "they even apologized to BP!" It's the ultimate talking point.
UPDATE: The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has joined in, sending out press releases targeting every Republican Senate candidate by asking if they agree with Barton's apology.
UPDATE 2: As has the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which sent an e-mail to supporters highlighting Barton's apology and asking for contributions "to show that Americans stand behind Democrats demanding full accountability for BP..."
UPDATE 3: Barton has been forced by House Republican leadership to retract his apology to BP. Barton was instructed that he must either retract the apology and apologize himself, or lose his post as the House Energy and Commerce Committee's top Republican.
Barton went along, issuing this statement through his committee office:
"I apologize for using the term 'shakedown' with regard to yesterday's actions at the White House in my opening statement this morning, and I retract my apology to BP. As I told my colleagues yesterday and said again this morning, BP should bear the full financial responsibility for the accident on their lease in the Gulf of Mexico. BP should fully compensate those families and businesses that have been hurt by this accident. BP and the federal government need to stop the leak, clean up the damage, and take whatever steps necessary to prevent a similar accident in the future."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 was told, apologize, immediately. Or you will lose your position, immediately," according to a GOP House aide. "Now that he has apologized, we'll see what happens going forward."
The political damage, however, has been done: Democrats have pounced, and they will continue to pounce. Before Barton offered his apology to Hayward, Republicans were already fighting off a Democratic message machine eager to paint them as oil-company friendly and skeptical of full BP liability. Boehner, for his part, has faced some confusion over his stance on BP liability. That's partly why Barton's apology was so toxic. Politico reported that Republican lawmakers were "hunkered down" in Boehner's office to discuss the flap over Barton's comments.
Despite the retraction, Democrats will keep pointing to Barton's initial apology as the parties jockey over the oil spill and as the Senate looks to hammer out an energy reform bill that can pass.