A top Republican lawmaker apologized to BP on Thursday for what he said was a "shakedown" by the government of the oil company in forcing it to create a $20 billion fund to pay out damages resulting from the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.
“I am ashamed of what happened in the White House yesterday," said Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), apologizing to the oil company.
Barton, the ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce, said that the relief fund BP created under pressure from President Barack Obama was, in essence, a "slush fund."
The White House and congressional Democrats immediately seized on Barton's remarks, while House GOP Leader John Boehner (Ohio) distanced himself from the comments at his weekly press conference.
Asked if he disagreed with Barton’s characterization of the deal struck yesterday at the White House, Boehner quickly responded, “I do.”
“BP agreed to fund the cost of this clean up from the beginning and I’m glad they’re being held accountable,” Boehner told reporters.
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs called on both parties to "repudiate" Barton's comments.
“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," he said in a statement.
"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," Gibbs said.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) echoed Gibbs's sentiment. Her office released a statement that said: “House Republicans continue to side with Big Oil over the needs of the American people.”
Hayward, BP Chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg and other top executives from the company met Wednesday with Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, and other administration officials to discuss the nearly two-month-old spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
The April 20 well blowout and explosion at the BP-leased Deepwater Horizon rig killed 11 workers and touched off the massive oil spill, which is now the largest in U.S. history.
After the meeting, BP announced it had agreed to open a $20 billion escrow fund that will be managed by an independent trustee to pay out claims of damages against the company as a result of the spill.
Barton called the $20 billion account a "slush fund," and said he did not want to live in a country in which citizens or companies that do something wrong can be subjected to such a "shakedown."
“It's unprecedented in our nation’s history, it has no legal standing, and it sets a terrible precedent for the future," he said.
He called it especially inappropriate pressure because the federal government is demanding the fund at a time when the Justice Department has an ongoing criminal investigation into the spill.
Minutes after Barton's comments, Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), a senior member of the committee and a leading Democratic lawmaker on energy and climate issues, hammered away at Barton.
The fund, Markey said, was an effort "to protect the most vulnerable citizens of our country right now."
"That's why this compensation fund was so important. That's why it is not a slush fund. That is why it is not a shakedown," Markey said. "It is in fact President Obama ensuring that a company which has spoiled the waters of our nation is made accountable for the harm that is done to our people."
This story was posted at 10:26 a.m. and updated at 11:38 a.m. and 12:55 p.m.