The White House is relishing what it sees as "a political gift" -- GOP criticism of the administration for pushing BP for a $20 billion compensation fund -- and warning of the danger if voters put big business-backing Republicans back in power.
With people angry over government spending and corporate bailouts, Democrats face the possibility of larger-than-usual losses in midterm elections and could lose control of the House or Senate -- or both.
White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel seized on the words of a few Republicans in defense of BP to make a larger point about what a GOP-run Congress might do and what the government's proper role in regulating business should be.
"Do you think that BP is the aggrieved party here? Do you think that Wall Street should be left alone and not have any reforms?" Emanuel said. "Elections are about choices. Those are what is fundamental. There is a difference in our philosophies."
President Barack Obama will speak in the weeks ahead about "these competing, different philosophies," Emanuel told ABC's "This Week."
At a House hearing Thursday, Democrats and Republicans criticized BP's chief executive, Tony Hayward, for his company's actions before and after the Deepwater Horizon oil rig disaster in April.
But Texas Rep. Joe Barton, the top Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, apologized for the way the White House had treated BP and said the $20 billion oil spill fund was the result of a "shakedown." Hours later, after criticism from both parties, Barton stepped back from those comments.
Barton has received $100,470 in campaign donations from oil and gas interests since the beginning of 2009, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The same group reported that since 1990, political action committees of the oil and gas industry and people who worked for it have given more than $1.4 million to Barton's campaigns, the most of any House member during that period.
Other Republicans have sounded sympathetic to BP in their criticism of the administration. Last month, Rand Paul, the Republican nominee for the Senate in Kentucky, said the administration's handling of the oil spill was antibusiness and that Obama at times sounded "really un-American in his criticism of business."
Emanuel said Barton and other Republicans see BP as the aggrieved party instead of the communities along the Gulf Coast.
"And that would the governing philosophy. And I think what Joe Barton did is remind the American people, in case they've forgotten, this is how the Republicans would govern," he said.
Emanuel added: "You can say it's a political gift for us, and it is. But it's dangerous for the American people, because while the ranking Republican would have oversight into the energy industry, and if the Republicans were the majority, would have actually the gavel and the chairmanship."
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, appearing on "Fox News Sunday," distanced himself from Barton's remarks and rejected Democratic claims that Republicans care more about oil companies than the environment.
"BP doesn't need an apology. They need to apologize to us, and they certainly need to cover all the costs of the cleanup and the economic damages as well. And they're going to," McConnell said.
Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., called Barton's statement "dumb" as well as baffling and said the congressman was speaking only for himself. "That is not mainstream Republican thought," Shelby told CBS' "Face the Nation."
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said Emanuel's description of Republican Party's philosophy concerning business "couldn't be more wrong." While she said Barton's comments also were wrong as well as inappropriate, she questioned the White House effort to make an issue of them.
"Let's not forget -- we had 11 people die. We have an environmental disaster unfolding. We have an economic disaster that is unfolding," Murkowski said on CNN's "State of the Union." She added: "Let's focus on providing what the people of the Gulf need, not pointing fingers back and forth and saying, 'Oh, you know, what you said was wrong.'"
Ken Feinberg, the chief of the Independent Claims Facility, dismissed Barton's statement that the fund he will oversee was the result of a shakedown, saying that it doesn't help to politicize the program. Appearing on NBC's "Meet the Press," Feinberg said he was receiving advice from Democrats and Republicans alike and hoped the effort to compensate Gulf residents would continue to be bipartisan.