WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama on Thursday consoled relatives of the 11 workers killed in the Gulf oil spill disaster, acknowledging their "unimaginable grief" and personally assuring the families that he will stand with them.
One man who lost a son asked Obama to support efforts to update federal law limiting the amount of money the families can collect.
"He told us we weren't going to be forgotten," said Keith Jones of Baton Rouge, La. "He just wanted us to know this wasn't going to leave his mind and his heart."
Jones' 28-year-old son, Gordon, was working on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig leased by BP PLC when it exploded April 20 and then sank in the Gulf of Mexico, causing the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history and creating one of Obama's biggest challenges as president.
The younger Jones, a mud engineer, left behind a wife, Michelle, and two sons, a 2-year-old and one born just a month ago. Obama held the baby, Maxwell Gordon.
"He said he hadn't done that in nine years, held a baby that size," Keith Jones told reporters afterward on the White House driveway.
The meeting with the families came on Day 51 of the disaster. Obama also updated congressional leaders from both parties on the response to the spill, and the top federal official overseeing the crisis invited BP executives to meet next week with Obama, their first meeting with the president since the rig exploded and sank.
Amid the grandeur of the Red Room and the adjacent State Dining Room, Obama addressed the grieving families as a group before he worked his way around the rooms, taking as much time as needed to console each family, Keith Jones said.
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs released a brief statement afterward that said Obama expressed his condolences and told the families that he, first lady Michelle Obama and the entire administration are "behind them and will be there long after the cameras are gone as they go through their unimaginable grief." Obama was joined by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, White House energy adviser Carol Browner, senior adviser Valerie Jarrett and Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, who is overseeing the crisis for the government.
The meeting lasted about 50 minutes and Bo, the Obama family dog, was brought in at one point.
Keith Jones said he and another son, Chris, asked Obama to support changing the Death on the High Seas Act, a 90-year-old law that limits liability for wrongful deaths more than three miles offshore. He said the law is unfair and "not in keeping with the way we do things now."
Obama promised to look into the matter, Keith Jones said.
Gibbs had told reporters earlier Thursday that Obama would tell the families that he'll work with Congress to address disparities in the law and to make sure that the families receive due compensation.
Jones is among four families that have sued Transocean Ltd., the rig's owner, as well as BP and other companies involved in its operation. The cases seek unspecified damages and are pending in federal courts in Houston and New Orleans. They could be consolidated with more than 150 other lawsuits filed by fishermen, businesses and property owners claiming economic losses because of the spill.
Obama put a six-month halt to new permits for deep-sea oil drilling after the accident, but some lawmakers and others want him to lift the moratorium, arguing that it could idle tens of thousands of oil industry workers.
Courtney Kemp, the widow of 27-year-old Roy Wyatt Kemp of Jonesville, La., said at a news conference on Capitol Hill that she told Obama the offshore drilling moratorium was devastating Gulf states. She said Obama "understood where we were coming from."
In his conversations with the families, Obama defended his decision to halt drilling, saying he wanted time to put additional safety measures in place to make sure something like the Deepwater Horizon explosion doesn't happen again.
Roy Kemp's mother, Peggy, said Obama "made promises I hope can be fulfilled."
"We walked away very confident," added Sheila Clark, widow of Donald Clark, 49, of Newellton, La. "Everything he can do he will do. I feel he will do his very best."
Congressional leaders, meanwhile, stepped up the pressure on BP to fully compensate economic victims of the spill.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said after the leaders met with Obama that "every taxpayer in America must know that BP will be held accountable for what is owed." Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell agreed that BP must "clean up the spill," but he also said Democrats shouldn't use the tragedy to campaign for energy legislation he contended would amount to a "national energy tax."
Asked whether BP should cut its dividends to shareholders, Pelosi said BP made $17 billion last year and has a responsibility "to pay these damages" to businesses in the Gulf. "Maybe people who receive dividends have deeper pockets," she said.
Gibbs declined to comment on BP's legal obligations to its shareholders.
Late Thursday, the White House released a letter from Allen inviting BP Chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg and "any appropriate officials from BP" to meet Wednesday with senior administration officials. Allen said Obama, who has yet to speak with any BP official since the explosion more than seven weeks ago, would participate in a portion of the meeting.
Gibbs earlier in the day did not rule out the possibility of a meeting next week between Obama and BP chief executive Tony Hayward. Hayward is scheduled to testify next Thursday at a House Energy subcommittee hearing into the spill.
Conservative commentators, including former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, have been criticizing Obama for not having met face to face with BP executives. White House reporters repeatedly have asked Gibbs why Obama hasn't spoken with Hayward or any other top BP officials. Gibbs' answer was that administration officials are in daily contact with BP.
Keith Jones described the mood during the meeting with Obama as sedate and respectful, not solemn or morose. He said he was glad Obama hadn't invited the families to the White House sooner because "it would have been far too early for me."
Keith Jones wore a blue ribbon pinned to his lapel with "Deepwater Horizon" written in yellow and 11 yellow stars – one for each victim.
Asked about criticism that Obama was too hands-off in the weeks immediately after the disaster, Keith Jones sounded supportive of the president.
"I don't know what people expected the president to do exactly, if they want him to go out there and wash pelicans," Keith Jones said. "He's the president. He's not someone who cleans beaches. It's important for us Louisianans to know that we have his support and I think he's communicated that."
Associated Press writers Tom Raum, Erica Werner, Julie Pace and Larry Margasak in Washington and AP Legal Affairs Writer Curt Anderson in Miami contributed to this report.