LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Republican Senate candidate Rand Paul said Thursday that harsh criticism of BP by President Barack Obama's administration could contribute to the oil giant's demise and harm its ability to pay for cleanup of the massive Gulf of Mexico oil spill.
The comments came in response to blistering criticism by Democratic opponent Jack Conway at their first appearance together. Conway blasted Paul for saying in late May that Obama's stance toward BP was un-American and anti-business. Those and other comments by Paul led to a backlash at the time that caused the Republican to retreat from the national scene for a couple of weeks.
Paul said Thursday that BP should pay for the Gulf cleanup, but that Obama administration's sharp rhetoric could help imperil the company.
"I don't want them to go out of business when they can't pay for the mess, and that's what that kind of rhetoric could do," he said. "I want BP to be in business so it can afford to pay for the mess."
BP said this week it has spent $3.12 billion so far in response to the spill, including attempting to contain oil, paying claims and reimbursing the U.S. and local governments. By comparison, BP posted $17 billion in profit from its vast operations around the globe last year.
Conway, who has run a low-key campaign so far, came out blasting Paul for the past comments on BP and for expressing misgivings about applying a portion of the Civil Rights Act to private businesses.
"Accountability is not going on national TV and saying that it's un-American to go after British Petroleum," said Conway, the state's attorney general. "Accountability is not having a world view where you think the government basically should never touch business whatsoever."
Paul fired back by linking Conway to Obama on health care and environmental issues while speaking to a large gathering of county officials at a Louisville hotel. The opponents are seeking to replace Republican Sen. Jim Bunning, who is retiring.
Paul, a Bowling Green eye doctor who promotes himself as a political outsider, said he would be willing to hold up Senate proceedings with a filibuster to try to prod other senators into taking up a balanced budget amendment.
"If I am elected, I will ... force a vote on the balanced budget amendment, and I will, if necessary, filibuster to be heard on the issue," he said. "Our country needs it, and someone's going to have to stand up."
Afterward, Paul said in an interview that he would prefer pushing the balanced budget proposal through the normal Senate process, but said there are times when a filibuster is justified.
"I think the deficit ... is such an enormous problem that it might warrant bringing things to a halt and having a discussion about it for a few days," he said.
Paul didn't offer any specifics about how to erase the nation's mushrooming deficit. He said each federal program should be reviewed to determine if it can be cut, eliminated or privatized.
Conway campaign spokeswoman Allison Haley later called Paul's support for a balanced budget amendment "empty rhetoric" unless the Republican backs it up with specifics on how to eliminate the deficit.