POLITICS:

House GOP retains Barton as Energy panel's ranking member

Texas Republican Joe Barton's apology to BP PLC for what he called a White House "shakedown" to pay damage claims for the company's Gulf of Mexico oil spill won't cost him his ranking member seat on the House Energy and Commerce panel, Republican aides said today.

Barton offered another apology to his Republican colleagues at a meeting this morning, telling them he regretted apologizing to BP and sparking a political firestorm, aides said. His mea culpa, they said, appeased Minority Leader John Boehner of Ohio and other Republican leaders.

The Republicans' decision to leave Barton in place will likely continue to fuel Democrats' efforts to paint the GOP as a friend of "Big Oil," but it avoids a messy intramural fight.

"Not much use removing him now and creating a whole lot of infighting," a senior Republican aide said.

But the move does not assure Barton's return to the committee's ranking member seat in the next Congress, or the panel's chairmanship, if his party regains control of the House. Republicans enforce a three-term limit on ranking members and chairmen, and Barton's time will be up.

Barton -- who chaired the Energy Committee when it drafted the 2005 energy bill that encouraged more offshore drilling -- had been expected to seek a waiver of the three-term rule. But that move seems next to impossible after Barton's fateful televised apology to BP CEO Tony Hayward at a hearing Thursday.

Hours later, Barton said his comments were "misconstrued," before later retracting the original remarks in a statement distributed by Republican leadership.

The two Republicans considered most likely to replace Barton next year are Michigan's Fred Upton and Illinois' John Shimkus. Upton is considered the leader in that race, largely because leaders fear the more junior Shimkus is more prone to shooting from the lip.

Since 1989, the oil and gas industry has contributed $184,150 to Upton, making it 12th among industries that have given to his campaigns, according to Opensecrets.org.

The petroleum industry is more generous to Shimkus, contributing more than $240,000 to his campaigns since 1996, ranking it fifth among industries who have contributed to him.

Oil and gas interests have been the top contributors to Barton, who hails from the Texas oil patch. They have donated more than $1.4 million to him since 1989, according to OpenSecrets.org.

'Political gift'

While Barton is unlikely to get the Energy and Commerce Committee gavel next year regardless of the midterm elections' outcome, that won't stop Democrats and their allies from continuing to use Barton to score political points.

Last weekend, White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel called the Texas Republican's BP apology a "political gift" that Democrats would use this fall. And House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) demonstrated yesterday that Democrats will cast Barton as an enduring symbol of Republican fealty to the energy industry and the policy of deregulation.

Hoyer deemed Barton's remarks a classic case of a politician saying what he believes, then finding those beliefs inconvenient. "Sometimes, if you go long enough, somebody says something that they absolutely believe, but they then quickly say that was a mistake that they said it," Hoyer said.

"Now, this was not an offhand comment," he continued. "This represents what is the underlying philosophy of the Republican Party as expressed by Ronald Reagan forward and prior to that, that somehow government oversight simply impedes business doing what it ought to do. I think that is a stark view of the comparison between the two parties."

House Democrats were quick to continue to pile on this morning after learning of the GOP decision.

"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," Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokesman Ryan Rudominer said in an e-mail.

Meanwhile, progressive groups are already salivating at the chance to use Barton's camera-ready comments as part of their campaigns.

Americans United for Change, a liberal interest group, will begin airing a new television ad entitled "The Choice" starting tomorrow on MSNBC, CNN and FOX News in the D.C. market using Barton's remarks.

"There is likely to be a major energy vote in the Senate in a few weeks, and Senate Republicans need to make clear whether they stand with Joe Barton or with the American people who are more than ready for a clean energy future -- more than ever in Deepwater Horizon's wake," said Jeremy Funk, the group's communication director.