WASHINGTON — This time last week, Rep. Michele Bachmann’s comments about BP and their $20 billion cleanup fund didn’t seem such a big deal on the Republican side of the aisle. But that’s no longer true.
“Now it seems that it’s all about extortion,” Bachmann told the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank last Tuesday. Her comments were about the Obama administration’s efforts to force BP into establishing a $20 billion cleanup fund for the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
Lest anyone think she misspoke, Bachmann reinforced those remarks later that day in a conversation with the Washington Post’s Dave Weigel. If she were the head of BP, Bachmann posited, she’d send the message that “We’re not going to be chumps, and we’re not going to be fleeced.”
She was not alone. Rush Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich made similar comments, as did Rep. Tom Price, head of the conservative Republican Study Committee (which counts Bachmann and Rep. John Kline among its 114 members).
“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,” Price said in a statement Wednesday. “These actions are emblematic of a politicization of our economy that has been borne out of this Administration’s drive for greater power and control.”
But just as Republicans seemed to be coalescing around that line of thinking, Texas Rep. Joe Barton, the ranking Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, crossed a bridge too far.
Barton, reading a prepared statement hearing during a Thursday hearing with BP CEO Tony Hayward, apologized to Hayward for what he called a White House “shakedown,” which Barton added he was “ashamed” of. House GOP leaders, quickly sensing the gaffe, threatened Barton with losing his committee perch unless he apologized for his apology, which he did later that day.
All with an eye on the November elections.
Heat at home, frost on Fox
Sure enough, DFL-endorsed challenger Tarryl Clark wasted no time cutting an ad hitting Bachmann on BP. The ad first appeared online next to a funding appeal, which raised enough money to begin airing on television Sunday night, campaign officials said.
“Congresswoman Bachmann won’t hold BP accountable, but we will hold her accountable for siding with special interests over the people of her district,” said Zach Rodvold, Clark’s campaign manager in announcing the ad. “Her constituents deserve to know: Congresswoman Bachmann stands with BP, not with us. It’s time for a representative who is really on their side.”
In a column on the same subject for the Washington newspaper The Hill, published this morning, Clark called Bachmann’s BP comments “outrageous.”
In a statement released by her campaign, Bachmann said Clark’s attacks amounted to “false claims and distortions.”
“In each of the interviews I have given, I have stated that BP is liable to fully compensate victims for the damage they have inflicted on the Gulf Coast with this tragic accident,” Bachmann said. “It’s important to make the victims whole, and the American taxpayer should not pay one dime for the mess created by this spill.”
That Democrats would seize on Bachmann’s remarks is nothing surprising. The reaction from two usually-sympathetic talkers at Fox News was.
Bill O’Reilly asked Bachmann repeatedly about her extortion comments during the course of a six-minute interview Friday, eventually telling her she was “dodging” the question.
Bachmann answered that the BP execs who agreed to the $20 billion fund did so under the threat of criminal prosecution (“thinking they might end up in the slammer” were her words).
“Is that wrong? Is that wrong to put that kind of pressure on them?” O’Reilly asked rhetorically.
“The only thing we are disagreeing about, here, today, is I don’t mind Obama saying, ‘You better do the right thing or we’re coming after you with everything we have.’ I want him to do that.”
Fox talker Geraldo Rivera also took a harder-than-usual tone in questioning Bachmann on the extortion claim.
Now, make no mistake, not everyone on the right side of the aisle has distanced themselves from criticizing remarks like Barton’s or Bachmman’s. Iowa Rep. Steve King, with whom Bachmann shares a press assistant, told conservative talk radio host Laura Ingraham that Barton was “spot-on when he called it a shakedown.”
Steven Smith, a professor at Washington University in St. Louis who commutes there from Minnesota, said the issue will linger into the fall election campaign.
“This is an issue with legs,” Smith said, “BP and the oil spill will be newsworthy for weeks. Siding with BP is going to be seen as bad policy.”
“The administration’s effort to set up a mechanism for quick and fair compensation at the expense of BP, which promised the compensation, is not likely to be seen as extortion by the middle-of-the-road voter,” Smith said. “Bachmann’s comments will likely be used by Clark effectively against her.”