QUOTE OF THE DAY (AND MAYBE THE YEAR)…. We talked earlier about the lengths Republicans are going to side with BP, despite the oil giant’s role in the worst environmental disaster in American history. I argued that the GOP is approaching the point at which Dems will reasonably be able to argue that Republicans are siding with BP over the country.

A few hours later, Republicans not only reached that point, they blew past it.

A House Energy and Commerce subcommittee convened a hearing this morning, ostensibly to read BP CEO Tony Hayward the riot act. Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), who has a well-deserved reputation for being the most pro-pollution member of Congress, used his opening statement to apologize to BP. As Barton explained it, he was outraged that the White House pressed BP to put aside $20 billion in escrow to bring relief to those hardest hit by the disaster.

“I’m ashamed of what happened in the White House yesterday,” Barton said. “I think it is a tragedy of the first proportion that a private corporation can be subjected to what I would characterize as a shakedown, in this case a $20 billion shakedown.” Talking directly to Hayward, Barton added, “I apologize. I do not want to live in a country where any time a citizen or a corporation does something that is legitimately wrong, is subject to some sort of political pressure that is, again, in my words, amounts to a shakedown. So I apologize.”

Democrats have been desperate to paint Republicans as siding with BP during this crisis. Barton just made that task much easier, with remarks that may prove to be the most politically important apology in recent memory.

Incessant Republican criticism of the White House is one thing; a leading Republican lawmaker issuing a public apology to BP is another.

I just never thought I’d see the day when a leading Republican publicly groveled to a foreign CEO, who just happens to be leading a company responsible for a devastating oil spill disaster. It was just a stunning display. That the right-wing Texan has taken in over $1.4 million in campaign contributions from the oil and gas industry over his career makes his apology that much more unseemly.

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs felt compelled to issue a statement: “What is shameful is that Joe Barton seems to have more concern for big corporations that caused this disaster than the fishermen, small business owners and communities whose lives have been devastated by the destruction. Congressman Barton may think that a fund to compensate these Americans is a ‘tragedy’, but most Americans know that the real tragedy is what the men and women of the Gulf Coast are going through right now. Members from both parties should repudiate his comments.”

We’ll see if Barton is forced to walk back his apology, but at this point, his remarks may be one of the year’s game-changing moments.

Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.