The firestorm over a Texas Republican's apology to BP continued at today's White House press briefing, with Vice President Biden calling the remarks "incredibly insensitive" and "out of touch." White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs went further, suggesting that Rep. Joe Barton (R) might not be a suitable ranking member of a committee investigating the worst environmental disaster in American history.
After joking about never saying what's on his mind, Biden responded to a question about Barton's characterization of the $20 billion escrow fund BP has agreed to establish for spill victims as a "shakedown." He called the congressman's remarks "astounding" and "outrageous," and urged people -- including those in Barton's home state of Texas -- to disassociate themselves from the comment.
"I find it incredibly insensitive, incredibly out of touch," Biden said. "There's no shakedown. It's insisting on responsible conduct and a responsible response to something [BP] caused."
Gibbs went even further when he questioned Barton's ability to participate in a congressional investigation into the BP incident. Barton is the ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which held today's hearing on BP, where Barton made the remarks.
"I think Republicans are going to have to ask themselves whether Congressman Barton should be the ranking member of a committee that's doing what it's doing today -- given the fact that he believes we owe an apology to BP, rather than BP owing an apology to the Gulf," Gibbs said. "As somebody who is going to oversee, as we look into what the company is doing, to begin by apologizing to the company I think is an interesting way to start."
The White House scored an important victory yesterday when BP agreed to establish the escrow fund -- contributing $5 billion a year for four years -- to cover economic damages from the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico at its deep water drilling operation and to set up a $100 million foundation to help compensate idled oil workers suffering under a six-month moratorium on deep water exploratory drilling operations.
In response to other Republican critics of the escrow fund who have called it a "big government initiative", Gibbs said "it's hard to tell what planet these people live on."
Hours after the remarks heard round the Beltway, Barton delivered something like an apology for them. "If anything I've said this morning has been misconstrued... I want to apologize for that .. misconstruction," he said.
Barton then released statement, which read: "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."