Joe Barton is not alone. The Texas congressman’s lavish sympathy for BP — which he sees not as perpetrator of a preventable disaster but as victim of a White House “shakedown” — is actually what passes for mainstream opinion among conservative Republicans today.

The GOP leadership came down hard on Barton after he apologized to the oil company for the beastly way it was being treated by the White House, saying he was “ashamed” that BP was being pressured to put $20 billion into a “slush fund” to compensate victims of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Barton was reportedly threatened with losing his powerful position as ranking member of the Energy and Commerce Committee if he didn’t retract his words, and pronto.

But Barton was only echoing a statement that Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga., had issued a day earlier in the name of the Republican Study Committee, a caucus of House conservatives whose website claims more than 115 members. The statement groused that there is “no legal authority for the president to compel a private company to set up or contribute to an escrow account” and accused the Obama administration of “Chicago-style shakedown politics.”

Just to review: A group comprising roughly two-thirds of all Republicans in the House takes the position that President Barack Obama was wrong to demand that BP set aside money to guarantee that those whose livelihoods are being ruined by the oil spill will be compensated. In other words, it’s more important to kneel at the altar of radical conservative ideology than to feel any sense of compassion for one’s fellow Americans. This, ladies and gentlemen, is how today’s GOP rolls.

To be sure, there are Republicans who realize that this is not the message the party should be sending as the midterm election nears. “I couldn’t disagree with Joe Barton more,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. Party leaders insisted that there was nothing to see at the cliff where Barton went through the political guard rails and that everyone should just move along.

But no. Let’s slow down and crane our necks.

Barton’s remarks were no spontaneous gaffe. They came in a prepared statement and clearly represent his genuine view of the situation: that the rights of a private company are absolute even when weighed against the clear interests of the public.

While the party leadership has managed to squelch members of Congress who might have been tempted to weigh in on Barton’s side, the conservative amen chorus can’t help itself. Rush Limbaugh called the agreement on the $20 billion escrow fund “unconstitutional” and accused the administration of acting like “a branch of organized crime.” Newt Gingrich said the White House was “extorting money from a company.” Stuart Varney of Fox News claimed — falsely — that Obama had moved to “seize a private company’s assets” and complained that the action was “Hugo Chavez-like.” Weekly Standard Editor Bill Kristol said that “I have no sympathy for BP,” but then proceeded to be sympathetic, offering that “it’s not helpful for the country, for the economy as a whole, for the president to bully different companies and different industries.”

I’d advise these people to get a grip, but they’re just saying what they believe. It just happens that what they believe is absurd.

There is ample evidence that BP, one of the biggest and most profitable oil companies in the world, cut corners in operating the Deepwater Horizon rig that resulted in the worst spill ever to despoil U.S. waters. BP’s assertions about its ability to prevent, contain and clean up any leakage of oil turned out to be patently false. If we were not dealing with such a tragic situation, the company’s tin ear for public relations would be comic; the unforgettable line from BP’s chairman — “We care about the small people” — sounds like something Mel Brooks might dream up for a sequel to “The Producers.”

Meanwhile, thousands of fishermen, shrimpers, oil rig workers, restaurant owners and others along the Gulf Coast are suffering the economic effects of the spill. The environmental damage, still worsening, will be felt for decades. A mile beneath the surface, that noxious plume of gas and oil continues to billow.

Yes, President Obama used the power of his office to pressure BP to set money aside for compensation. If Republicans believe he shouldn’t have, then by all means they should speak up. Come November, the voters will be able to decide who’s right.

Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)

© 2010, Washington Post Writers Group

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