By Molly K. Hooper - 06/24/10 12:51 AM EDT
House Republican leaders on Wednesday spared Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas).
On the same day President Barack Obama relieved Gen. Stanley McChrystal of his duties in Afghanistan, House Republicans opted not to punish Barton for apologizing to BP last week.
During the weekly meeting of the House Republican Conference, Barton apologized for his comments about BP, which Democrats have touted from the moment he uttered them last Thursday.
GOP conference Chairman Mike Pence (Ind.) said, “Today he offered a very humble apology to his colleagues … I think members of Congress, members of the Republican Conference believe in second chances and accepted his apology and it’s over.”
House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) told reporters, “Mr. Barton apologized to the members for his poor choice of words, he retracted his statement last week and apologized and the issue is closed.”
Rep. Jo Bonner (R-Ala.), who demanded on Friday that Barton step aside, called the Texan’s apology to the conference “heartfelt. I think that his sincerity came through.”
Bonner was one of many lawmakers incensed to hear Barton issue his apology to BP CEO Tony Hayward. Barton labeled the Obama administration’s pressure on BP to create a $20 billion escrow fund for victim compensation “a shakedown.”
Bonner, whose district has been hit hard by the Gulf Coast oil spill, was unmoved late last week by Barton’s initial attempt at damage control.
Asked on Wednesday if he thought Barton should step down, Bonner responded, “I’ve said all I’m going to say.”
Rep. Jeff Miller (Fla.), the other House GOP lawmaker to call for Barton to step aside as ranking member, attended Wednesday’s conference meeting but wasn’t available to comment afterward.
On Tuesday night, GOP Whip Eric Cantor (Va.) was seen talking to Bonner and Miller on the House floor during votes.
According to a source briefed on the conversation, the No. 2 House Republican explained that GOP leaders gave Barton a list of things to do after his BP comments quickly became national news.
The message Cantor delivered, in essence, was: Barton listened to the advice of Republican leaders, and removing him as the ranking member would cause more harm than good.
The Texan’s final term as ranking member runs out at the end of the year, and leaders felt replacing him at this point could divide the party at a time when it is working to win control of the House in November.
Furthermore, Democrats will use Barton’s remarks in their ads regardless of whether he remains atop the Republican side, one GOP leadership aide said.
Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) said Barton “took responsibility,” telling his colleagues, “Look, I made a big mistake. I’m sorry and I appreciate people for pointing it out.”
Cole added, “It’s over. [Leaders] did the right thing, [Barton] did the right thing, and it’s behind us now.”
Barton said Wednesday that he “made a statement from the heart to the conference.”
“I am the ranking member and serve at the pleasure of the conference and hope that the conference has confidence that will allow me to continue to serve,” Barton said as he navigated through a swarm of reporters following the GOP meeting.
Barton on Wednesday continued business as usual on his committee website, issuing a statement bashing the president’s new healthcare reform law.
Some believe Barton survived the ax because of the McChrystal controversy.
Just as it looked like he was in the clear, Barton’s staff on Wednesday tweeted, “Joe Barton was right.” The tweet referenced a letter to the editor from the conservative American Spectator defending Barton’s BP comments.
Barton’s account deleted the tweet shortly after it had been posted. Barton’s communications director, Sean Brown, acknowledged posting the tweet on Wednesday. He said Barton was unaware of the tweet before it was sent out.
Even though Republicans claim the Barton imbroglio is history, the Democratic National Committee is looking to keep it alive, issuing a slew of releases on Wednesday.
In a statement Wednesday, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) spokesman Ryan Rudominer said, “The choice for voters this November could not be more clear: House Democrats stand with American taxpayers and the people of the Gulf while House Republicans and their candidates shamefully stand with Joe Barton, British Petroleum and Big Oil.”
Those remarks come in the wake of White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel’s criticism of Barton over the weekend.
Democrats appear to be following a page from Emanuel’s political playbook. When he headed the DCCC during the 2006 cycle, Emanuel would let Republican controversies play out in the press and then gin them up again the moment they appeared to die down.
Pence, who along with Barton launched a bid for GOP leader against Boehner following the 2006 elections, said, “The American people want this Congress and this administration to focus on the crisis in the Gulf and not scoring political points on Capitol Hill.”
Boehner called the Democrats’ strategy on Barton’s comments a “distraction” from what the president has failed to do on the oil spill.
“Joe Barton apologized. … We should not, though, allow this distraction to get in the way of the real problem. The administration has no plan that will stop the leak in the Gulf and … help clean up this mess,” Boehner said, adding the GOP talking point of the day: “It’s over.”
Michael O’Brien contributed to this report.