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A Republican lawmaker accused the Obama administration Thursday of extortion after it secured a $20 billion compensation fund from the BP oil company for victims of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.
The comments by Rep. Joe L. Barton of Texas, and the blowback it produced, threatened to overshadow a daylong congressional hearing in which BP's top executive expressed regret, but stopped short of admitting fault for the massive spill.
Mr. Barton, while speaking before the House panel investigating the incident, accused the president of using political pressure to squeeze money from BP for the compensation fund, a deal announced Wednesday.
"I'm ashamed of what happened in the White House yesterday," Mr. Barton said. "I think it is a tragedy of the first proportion that a private corporation can be subjected to what I would characterize as a shakedown, in this case, a $20 billion shakedown."
Mr. Barton, whose east-central Texas district doesn't border his state's Gulf coast, called the compensation package a "slush fund that's unprecedented in our nation's history, that's got no legal standing, and which sets, I think, a terrible precedent for the future."
"I do not want to live in a country where any time a citizen or a corporation does something that is legitimately wrong is subject to some sort of political pressure; that is, again, in my words, amounts to a shakedown," he said.
The Republican's comments spurred a quick rebuttal from the White House, which called his comments "shameful."
"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," said White House press secretary Robert Gibbs.
Mr. Barton later apologized for using the word "shakedown" and said that BP should bear the full financial responsibility for the spill.
"BP should fully compensate those families and businesses that have been hurt by this accident," the lawmaker said in a prepared statement. "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."
Mr. Barton's White House rebuke mimicked similar comments a day earlier by the leader of the Republican Study Committee, a group of conservative House Republicans that includes Mr. Barton.
"BP's reported willingness to go along with the White House's new fund suggests that the Obama administration is hard at work exerting its brand of Chicago-style shakedown politics," said Rep. Tom Price of Georgia, the committee's chairman, in a statement posted on the group's website.
The statement by late Thursday afternoon had been removed from the committee's website.
Meanwhile, a bipartisan cadre of lawmakers spent hours chastising BP PLC Chief Executive Officer Tony Hayward for his handling of the spill, accusing his company of putting profit over safety.
Mr. Hayward told the lawmakers that he was "deeply sorry" for the spill and that his company will pay all necessary environmental costs.
"We will be vigilant in our cleanup," said Mr. Hayward, while testifying before the House Energy and Commerce oversight and investigations subcommittee. "We are a strong company, and no resources will be spared."
The executive added it could take until August to stop the gusher of oil that has caused devastating economic and environmental damage.
Mr. Hayward's opening statements were interrupted by a shouting protester, who was escorted from the hearing room by police and arrested.
Rep. Bart Stupak, Michigan Democrat and the subcommittee chairman, accused BP of a "reckless disregard for safety."
"We have learned that, time after time, BP had warning signs that this was, as one employee put it, a 'nightmare well,' " Mr. Stupak said. "BP made choices that set safety aside in exchange for cost-cutting and time-saving additions."
Rep. Michael C. Burgess of Texas, the panel's top Republican, said that "the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico shows the consequence of a series of unchecked bad decisions."
When lawmakers asked Mr. Hayward if BP cut safety corners that lead to the spill, Mr. Hayward repeatedly said he wouldn't comment on that until several investigations into the spill are completed.
Frustrated lawmakers shot back at the executive, accusing him of evading the question.
"You're really insulting our intelligence, with all due respect, by not giving us any answers," said Rep. Eliot L. Engel, New York Democrat. "I, like everyone else here and everyone else in America, is thoroughly disgusted."
Rep. Henry A. Waxman, California Democrat, said that internal BP documents appear to show that the company "repeatedly took shortcuts that endangered lives and increased the risks of a catastrophic blowout."
"We've reviewed the 30,000 pages of documents from BP, including your e-mails. There is not a single e-mail or document that shows you paid even the slightest attention to the dangers at this well," Mr. Waxman said.
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About the Author
Sean Lengell covers Congress and national politics and can be reached at email@example.com.
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