JACKSON, Miss. — A tea party favorite running for the U.S. Senate in Kentucky says President Barack Obama is using the Gulf of Mexico oil spill to advance an energy tax.
While Democrats denounce BP for the spill, a Republican congressman from Texas accuses the White House of performing a $20 billion "shakedown" by pushing the company to create a compensation fund for spill victims. Rep. Joe Barton also apologizes to BP Chief Executive Tony Hayward at a Capitol hearing, although he is later pressured by GOP leaders to apologize for his apology.
In the two months since BP's underwater well ruptured and started belching millions of gallons of crude into the Gulf, many conservatives have expressed fears that Obama and his allies will use the spill to make government bigger and intrude more into private enterprise.
Republican Senate candidate Rand Paul of Kentucky said Friday that he was disturbed by Obama's promise to find out "whose ass to kick."
"I'll move past the obvious problem with the appropriateness of the comment to just say this: Look in the mirror Mr. President," Paul said in a statement. "This crisis has been a case study in failure to lead, failure to act, and using a crisis to advance your own agenda rather than solve the problem."
Erin Ryan, a tea party activist in Redding, Calif., said Barton was correct to use the word "shakedown."
"Wow," Ryan said. "Somebody finally said it out loud?"
Conservative talk show host Mark Williams, chairman of the California-based Tea Party Express, said the White House went too far by pressuring BP to create the fund while the Justice Department is conducting criminal and civil probes of the spill.
"I'm accustomed to mobsters behaving that way, I'm just not accustomed to it from the president, especially when he's standing there with the attorney general threatening legal action," Williams said. "Where I come from, they call it extortion."
Even in the Gulf states of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida, where people's daily lives are affected by beach closures, tar balls and the endangerment of the seafood and tourism industries, some say they're not angry at BP.
"I think BP is being extremely generous and they should be commended for that. They're going above and beyond, as far as I'm concerned," said retired civil servant and tea party organizer Charlie Purchner of Long Beach, Miss., where booms are floating less than a mile offshore in case oil approaches.
Mississippi's Republican governor, Haley Barbour, said he expects BP to pay all legitimate claims but he believes making the company set aside $5 billion a year over four years could hurt BP and, ultimately, the coastal residents and businesses who are supposed to be compensated for losses.
"If they take a huge amount of money and put it in an escrow account so they can't use it to drill oil wells and produce revenue, are they going to be able to pay us?" Barbour said.
Donn Janes, an independent running for Congress on a tea party platform in Tennessee, said he considers the Obama administration to be "anti-oil," but doesn't think BP is being mistreated.
"I don't see that as shakedown on big business," Janes said. "BP is definitely not blameless in this – they're the cause."
In Oklahoma, where oil and natural gas drive the state's economy, tea party favorite Randy Brogdon, a Republican candidate for governor, said federal involvement in the BP disaster is only making the situation worse.
"This is a perfect example of why government should never be involved in the private sector," said Brogdon, a state senator campaigning on limited federal government. "Government is not the solution. It's the problem. The more government tries to get in and regulate the free market, the worse things become."
Many conservatives believe, like Paul, that Obama is using the oil spill to push a climate change bill they believe will raise the cost of energy and kill jobs.
"Why the hell are you bringing up cap and trade and increased carbon taxes in the same breath as dealing with this emergency?" asked Mark Falzon, who's active in three New Jersey tea party groups and is state coordinator for the national Tea Party Patriots.
Seattle blogger and tea party activist Keli Carender said Obama should focus on controlling and cleaning up the oil spill by marshaling the National Guard and other federal resources to the Gulf Coast.
"Nobody's asking him to close the hole. We understand he doesn't have a secret weapon, like the presidential lock box that he could unleash," Carender said. "But there are many things that he could do."
Trent Humphries, co-founder of a tea party group in Tucson, Ariz., said Obama has spent too much time criticizing BP and not enough using the government's vast resources to stop the leaking oil.
"Goodness knows they deserve it, but bashing BP is not a solution to this problem," Humphries said.
Republicans and tea partiers aren't alone in being wary about the federal response to the oil disaster. Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal, a Democrat and early Obama supporter, said he's concerned the Gulf spill could prompt an overreaction from federal regulators. Wyoming is among the top states in natural gas and oil production and leads in coal production.
Underwater drilling is occurring at depths that exceed technological capabilities, Freudenthal said. "It's one thing to drill at 300 feet, it's quite another to drill at 5,000."
Freudenthal said he doesn't want the federal government to impose strict drilling regulations that would hurt Wyoming: "We've kind of got it figured out here on land."
Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers Roger Alford in Frankfort, Ky.; Robin Hindery in Sacramento, Calif.; Michael R. Blood in Los Angeles; Erik Schelzig in Nashville, Tenn.; Geoff Mulvihill in Philadelphia; Sean Murphy in Oklahoma City; Curt Woodward in Olympia., Wash.; Jonathan J. Cooper in Phoenix; and Ben Neary, in Cheyenne, Wyo.