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Joe Barton's apology and a potential GOP trap

Giving the opening statement for Republicans at today's BP hearing, Rep. Joe Barton (R-Tex.), the ranking member of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, vigorously defended the company in the wake of Wednesday's compromise on an escrow fund to pay for damages from its broken oil well in the Gulf of Mexico.

"It is a tragedy of the first proportion that a private corporation can be subjected to what I would characterize as a shakedown," said Barton, "in this case a $20 billion shakedown."

Barton, who holds a safe seat in Texas, is saying what the leading edge of tea partyers and conservatives are saying -- no matter whether it's good politics, his first worry about the response to the disaster is that it will empower the federal government. Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) said this to me on Tuesday, and Dick Armey said it to me yesterday when I told him about the $20 billion compromise.

"It fascinates me," said Armey. "I'm fascinated with it. I'm against it -- there is no doubt that BP has resititution to make, but there is something called due process through the legitimate judicial branch of government through which these things should be adjudicated."

Conservatives are reacting instinctively, and the fact that "pay czar" Ken Feinberg will be running the fund leaves an immediate bad taste in their mouths. But Democrats see an opportunity here to discredit the GOP's rhetoric in support of small government.

"Not only is the compensation fund that was created yesterday... not a slush fund, and not a shakedown," said Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) speaking shortly after Barton, "rather it was the government of the United States working to protect the most vulnerable citizens we have in our country right now. It is BP's spill, but it is America's ocean."

By David Weigel  |  June 17, 2010; 10:24 AM ET
Categories:  Energy  
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